Matthew Barzun ’88 The Power of Giving Away Power

Celebrating the Strength of Relationships

by Jana F. Brown
In “The Power of Giving Away Power,” Matthew Barzun ’88 explores the problem society has with power — and the benefits that can come from sharing it.
As ambassador to the United Kingdom, Matthew Barzun ’88 began each morning at his London office by reading the words of one of his predecessors, John G. Winant of the St. Paul’s School Form of 1908.
 
The words on his desk mirror the inscription on Winant’s tombstone, which, at the request of Barzun, were also printed in the program for the Baccalaureate service of the Form of 2017, for which Barzun was the invited speaker. “Doing the day’s work, day by day, doing a little, adding a little . . .” The full inscription amounts to a kind of diplomat’s credo.
 
“[Winant] became a real mentor, and I read a lot about his life,” says Barzun, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. from 2013 to 2017. “He was shy and awkward — a contrast to the more famous person who came before him [Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.] — yet also incredibly effective at tending to relationships, and his words set the right pattern and tone for what I wanted to do there.”
The Power of Giving Away Power
It was not long before he returned to the United States that Barzun knew he wanted to write about an underappreciated style of leadership, one that emphasizes the strength of relationships over individuals and disperses power as a means of making organizations and individuals stronger. The result is “The Power of Giving Away Power: How the Best Leaders Learn to Let Go.” Published in June (with the help of literary agent Andrew Wylie ’65), the book explores the problem society has with power.
 
“Most of us have gotten the memo that hoarding power and lording it over others is not good,” Barzun explains. “So we mistakenly assume that the only alternative is a kind of collective power-sharing, which rarely works. The flaw in the premise with both is the idea that power is a finite resource, like coal. What Winant and other leaders recognized is that power is not something you mine, it’s something you make in strong relationships with other people. I wanted to get these ideas out there.”
 
While his publication is categorized as a “leadership” book, the word makes Barzun cringe a little, with its top-of-pyramid implications. “The Power of Giving Away Power” invokes the lessons of some of the great thinkers of the last century. The hero of the volume, Barzun says, is philosopher and organizational theory pioneer Mary Parker Follett.
 
“She was an amazing woman, writing 100 years ago when America was coming out of a global pandemic,” Barzun says. “She saw social, economic, and racial division in her country and thought there was something each of us could do. It started with how we behave around a table with one another.”
 
For those seated around that proverbial table, Follett warned of the false resolution of compromise. Instead, she thought meetings should strive toward co-creation.
 
“[Follett] said compromise sounds better,” Barzun says. “But in a compromise, all you get is partial victory and partial acquiescence. The only reason to gather is co-creation, to make something together as a group. When you do that, this magic thing happens, and it requires each person to come to the table with three expectations: expect to be needed; expect to need others; and expect to be changed.”
 
Other case studies in Barzun’s work include Dee Hock and the founding of Visa; Jimmy Wales and the formation of Wikipedia; and the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous through the shared vision of recovering drinker Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. While “The Power of Giving Away Power” may be a natural fit for the corporate world, nonprofits, and political organizations, Barzun also sees it having wider applications, from academia to parenting.
 
“When my daughter saw the subtitle for the first time, she shot me an ‘Oh, really?’ smile,” Barzun says. “Even in parenting, it’s hard to let go of thinking you have all the right answers.”

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