New Power Leadership & Your Organization

What is “New Power Leadership” and how can associations leverage this leadership style to push their organizations into the future?

By TJ Baskerville 

New Power Leadership

Have you heard of the term “New Power Leadership”?

It’s a leadership model that’s becoming more popular in the business world, but many people are still not fully aware of what it entails. The reality is that many of us have already transitioned to this new leadership model and don’t even know it. However, I feel that intentionally implementing this model can have significant benefits.

The simple mention of COVID-19 triggers so many different emotions. It has brought about many changes in our lives, including the way we work. Organizations that never had work-from-home options quickly discovered that employees can still be productive when working remotely. During a Zoom meeting, it’s not uncommon to see a pet enter the frame or hear a child playing in the background, which was once considered unprofessional. Remember the guy who was giving an interview on BBC in 2017 when his kids barged into his office and his wife ran in to drag them out? When that video went viral, Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, became known as “BBC Dad”. He recently shared some family photos to Twitter to mark the six-year anniversary of the parenting fail. Think of how you felt watching that video in 2017 (pre-COVID) compared to now. Life and all its interruptions are just more accepted in the virtual workplace.

One of the biggest takeaways from COVID-19’s impact on our industry is that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done to get great results. Cue new power leadership.

So, what exactly is new power leadership?

It’s very much a study in new power vs. old power. Management used to be much more hierarchal. Employees were guided by one person or a handful of people. Bosses made the rules and staff followed the rules. Terms like “authentic leadership,” “transparency,” and “empowerment” weren’t used in corporate culture. Somewhere down the line, we realized that we are stronger when we work together, and many contributors can help drive the vision and goal of an organization.

The term was new to me too; but once I learned more about it, I realized it’s prevalence in our current work climate. I recently attended Association Forum’s Women’s Executive Forum™, and one of the questions that was asked at the Knowledge Exchange World Café session was “What is new power leadership and what does it mean to you?” I enjoyed a lively conversation with the women at my table, which got me thinking about the term and where it came from.

In 2016, Jeremy Heimans gave a TED Talk titled “What New Power Looks Like,” where he defined new power as “The deployment of mass participation and peer coordination to create change and shift outcomes.” In 2018, Heimans co-authored a book on the topic with Henry Timms, CEO of the Lincoln Center. The book, “New Power,” promises to help readers understand the 21st century and how collaboration and mobilization are reshaping the world.

In my research, I found a LinkedIn article published by Jesse Chen titled “Understanding New Power Leadership.” Chen points out that new power organizations don’t have control centralized in one place like they did in the past. Instead, the power comes from those who are connected to the top and participate regularly. He writes “new power leaders do not get their power from being ‘over’ people, but rather get their power from being connected with people.”

In a 2022 FORUM Magazine article, “Agility & Associations,” author Kim Kelly writes, “for most of the 20th Century, hierarchal business structures were status quo and meant to optimize labor, quality control, and project management. Businesses were run like machines, with top-down management and the assumption that employees needed to be told what to do so that the organization didn’t descend into chaos. This is what many refer to as The Management Century.” The article goes on to detail the ways software developers disrupted The Management Century by creating Agile Methodology. In the wake of COVID-19, organizational agility became even more important as the world witnessed rapid changes to the status quo. Kelly writes, “agile organizations reimagine both whom they create value for, and how they do so…they are intensely customer-focused and seek to meet diverse needs across the entire customer life cycle.” The vision required to lead an agile organization comes from new power.   

So, how do you know if you’re operating under new power leadership?

In a Harvard Business Review article by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, authors of the aforementioned book “New Power,” describe old power as currency that few hold—and those who hold it guard it and have the power to spend it. It’s closed off, inaccessible, and driven by leaders. The duo describes new power as a current, noting that it’s made by many, open, peer-driven and distributed. They go on to describe it as water or electricity, saying, “it’s most forceful when it surges” and highlighting that the goal of new power is to channel it, not hoard it.

Anna Polyak, RN, JD, CEO at Society of Surgical Oncology, wouldn’t describe herself as a new power leader because it wasn’t a familiar term for her. But she values collaboration, sharing knowledge, and empowering her staff—all important aspects of new power leadership.

“We have this large conference room table to sit around, and about once every other week, depending on what’s going on, we go around where everybody shares what are they working on, and then all of us can really jump in, learn about it, suggest ideas,” says Polyak.

Polyak credits the leaders she worked for before rising to CEO with instilling a collaborative ethos in her. She started her career as a surgical nurse before earning her J.D. and working in healthcare compliance and public health. She landed in associations when she was contacted by the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology to head their legal and state government affairs division. She called the job at AANA (which lasted 11 years) a homecoming since she had been an operating room nurse.

“I’ve never been in a situation where leadership was hierarchal,” Polyak says. “My experience in leadership was working together, sharing ideas, bringing everyone together.” She says that this stems from her career as a nurse. “If you want to have successful outcomes in the operating room, you have to work together and make sure there’s effective communication,” she says.

So, how can you apply new power leadership to your business model?

Chen says it’s about shared decision-making, transparency, inclusivity, and servant leadership. As a new power leader, you empower your colleagues, serve them, and communicate with them. Claiming to be a new power leader isn’t enough—you must also encourage those you work with to contribute their ideas and thoughts. Empowering colleagues creates a collective solution to a challenge and the results can be incredible.

Polyak says she’s always appreciated transparent leadership. “I’ve had leaders along the way who would not only share with me the things that they knew; they would share with me the mistakes that they made,” she says. Now, as CEO, Polyak shares her mistakes with her team. “I say ‘guess what? Today I learned something the hard way,’” she says.

“It’s really important to pass it on to your team,” Polyak adds, “not just the good experiences and the knowledge you have, but also, ‘this is what I did wrong, and this is why I’ll never do this again.’”

For Polyak, creating psychological safety with her team is more important that maintaining a pristine image of herself as CEO. She spoke about creativity and how new ideas inherently involve risk. Work environments that don’t support risk won’t support creativity.

SSO recently held their annual meeting and Polyak says they implemented a lot of new initiatives. “Most of those ideas came up from conversations at the round table,” she says. “Of course, there’s a big difference between having ideas and implementing them. We learned that the hard way a little bit too. I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t a big lift to execute it, but we did it and it was wonderful.” She says that executing these new ideas required all staff to pitch in and created several learning opportunities along the way. Going through this collaborative process together helped them share information and work together to find real-time solutions to challenges that arose. This is when the current surges.

When Polyak was tapped to be CEO, she reached out to a former boss for advice. She told her to listen to her staff and then act on it. “There’s never enough time in the day,” she says. “Sometimes we forget to just sit and listen to our staff.” She was intentional in her listening as a new CEO and now it is a part of her leadership arsenal. “It became a habit and it really paid back because A) I learned a lot; and B) the team felt they were listened to and that they owned the projects we were implementing,” she says. This is what it looks like to distribute power and create a current that runs through an organization.

How do you know if you’re on the path to New Power Leadership?

Your team will let you know through their communication and behavior. Think of the metaphor of a current—you can feel if a stream is running smoothly or if it’s choppy. If your team comes to you for input, but not answers, you are on the right path. If your team feels safe to take risks, you are on the right path. If you see your team collaborating with each other, you are on the right path.

Remember, new power leaders must remain open. Polyak mentioned a staff member who always takes a practical view of the work they do at SSO. “We don’t do anything until she says it’s ok,” says Polyak, adding, “because she will [question] an idea and give us 10 unintended consequences and we value that.” Instead of labeling this staff member as a naysayer, Polyak’s team calls her “the designated adult” and seeks her input on every project. She says that they still might move forward, but having this staff member’s opinion—even if she dissents with the group—adds value to every decision.

If you read the spring issue of this magazine, you know that we believe in leading at every level. Whether you are a functional expert, part of the empowered middle, or in the C-suite, you have influence and you can apply new power leadership to your role.

Polyak had already accumulated her leadership armamentarium over the course of a diverse and successful career. Yet, she calls taking the CEO position a big step for her. “How will I be? How will I be perceived?” she thought. After reading every leadership book she could get her hands on, she came away with the answer: “At the end of the day, you’ll just have to be yourself because there isn’t time to be anything else.”

About the Author

TJ is Assistant Director: Online Education at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA). She has more than a decade of experience in association management. TJ is the Vice Chair of Association Forum’s Educational Program Development SIG and a member of the 2023-24 Content Working Group.

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