Old Power is Dying: Here's How to Leverage New Power within your Organization

7 min read
Jul 26, 2018


Jeremy Heimans Leadership Warriors

The rules of power are changing. In our hyper-connected world, power is increasingly wielded by the collective, and the leaders who thrive are those able to harness it effectively.

In this edition of our Leadership Warriors series, Jeremy Heimans talks to us about his best selling book ‘New Power’ and why the ability to mobilize the masses is an essential skill for leaders in the 21st century.

Jeremy Heimans is the cofounder and CEO of Purpose, an organization that supports the creation and proliferation of movements worldwide. From gun violence to climate change, Purpose is dedicated to fostering communities around global problems and leveraging that united energy to affect real change. During his career, Heimans has successfully employed the concept of new power to tackle social and political issues, but the same principles can be applied to drive change in a corporate setting too.

Employees at organizations with new power models have a greater sense of ownership at work and as a result, are likely to be more motivated, engaged and productive. In addition, a decentralized org structure can enhance the flow of ideas and lead to a more agile and efficient work environment. So how do you go about transitioning from an old power to new power structure within your organization?

Watch the video above, or read and share with your leadership team!

Tip One: Understand your Company's Power Structure

Before you can harness new power principles, it’s important to identify the type of power structure that currently exists within your organization. Power and influence in the workplace has traditionally been something that must be seized and closely guarded. This is the old power mode of operation that still governs many businesses today. In the new power approach, influence is sourced from those around you at all levels of the company hierarchy. To understand where an organization lies on this spectrum, Heimans suggests looking at a company’s values in connection to issues like “transparency, collaboration, governance, loyalty, affiliation and a desire to move out of specialized lanes.”

This awareness of your organization’s current mindset is important in order to create an effective game plan for employing new power principles. As Heiman’s says, “organizations with an old power model require a very different strategy when compared to a company that’s already beginning to experiment in meaningful ways with new forms of participation and more distributed ownership.”


Tip Two: Activate Spearheaders of Change

Anyone within the company hierarchy is capable of spearheading a shift towards new power. Some employees, however, are better placed than others to achieve this. In his book, Heimans identifies several archetypes that help us understand the qualities of leaders who are successful in driving change, and distinguishing these from ‘false prophets’.

One example Heimans gives us is that of the ‘Shapeshifter’. A Shapeshifter is an employee who has high institutional knowledge and a deep appreciation for the organization’s norms and values. While we might assume that recent hires with radical ideas are most likely to disrupt the status quo, Heiman’s research shows that the Shapeshifter is much better positioned to symbolise major change.

Two other characters Heimans introduces us to include the “Digital Bridge” and the “Digital Beard”. Whereas the Digital Bridge is a leader “highly empowered to focus on making the transition from old to new power”, the Digital Beard’s purpose is act as the heralder of change and represent an outward show of progress to appease customers and employees. In reality, this transition is merely a facade and the employee is isolated from the most important decisions.

Heimans employs these archetypes to give us a framework in which to understand how new power principles can be helped or hindered in real life. Transforming an organization’s power structure does not happen spontaneously. In order to create an environment that allows for increased participation, leaders with the right background and standing are needed to champion the cause.


Tip Three: Learn the Skills of New Power Leaders

New power leaders are not necessarily managers. They can emerge from any level of an organization. What’s important is that they can demonstrate the skills outlined below:

  1. Signaling is how a leader fuels a feeling of power within those around him: It refers to the gestures he or she sends that encourages participation, a sense of ownership and the rise of individual agency. In his book, Heiman uses the quote from Obama “we are the ones we have beenwaiting for” as a classic example of signalling in action.
  1. Structuring refers to the building of a framework that allows for increased autonomy and participation. “It’s very easy to create anarchy” Heiman’s says. And so the key to successful structuring is designing a system where people are free to make decisions for themselves while also providing enough support and clarity to maintain productivity. Heiman’s own company, Purpose is on a mission to do just that. Purpose employs a multidisciplinary team of technologists, creatives and political campaigners to provide the enabling structure for social movements to take root and grow organically. Heimans uses the example of Everytown, a US organization dedicated to fighting gun violence to illustrate the kind of strategy required to make a movement function effectively: “We conducted analysis to find an audience that could engage with the issue of gun violence and change the narrative. And it was mums in particular who are concerned about the safety of their kids when they go to school that we found to be really potent political spokespeople.”
  1. Shaping is the way new power leaders “create and set the values of your crowd without relying on your formal authority”. This third skill is important because formal authority has its limits: consumer pressure and boycotts are just a couple examples of issues managers have little control over. An effective new power leader is able to influence her audience’s behavior without wielding her rank and title. Successful shaping is when norms and values are willingly upheld even after the leader is no longer around to spread them.

 Great Leadership

Case Study: The Buurtzorg Nurses

One of the best examples Heimans gives of new power principles being applied in a corporate setting is that of a pioneering healthcare organization based in the Netherlands.

Buurtzorg is a network of over 15,000 nurses, organized in teams of 12 that are essentially self-managed. The Buurtzorg model is designed to empower the small teams and provide them with the autonomy to organize their work, share responsibilities and make decisions. With only 45 people working in the head office, the Dutch network represents the ultimate departure from the traditional, bureaucratic structure that’s common in the home-nursing industry.

Heimans explains the very typical set of events that persuaded one nurse to join the network: “Every week Madelon would report to her supervisor and her supervisor would ask: “Why did you spend an extra five minutes with 96-year-old Mrs. Brown?” Madelon’s profession is about caring for people and yet the approach of her supervisor was process-driven and anything but human-centered. In contrast, The Buurtzorg network offered an alternative approach that focused on prioritizing the mental and physical well-being of individual patients.

Picture of smiling nurse assisting senior man

A decentralized network is not without its challenges, however. How can nurses receive the coaching and support necessary to thrive in their careers? Unlike in a traditional top-down company structure, nurses have access to sideways mentoring via their own web platform. Through the Buurtzorg web, nurses can “ask each other questions, support each other, create lesson plans for each other, educate each other on particular aspects of their patients' needs and share innovative solutions”.

And unlike organizations that run on old power, the nurses are given the autonomy to implement these innovative solutions in ways that are relevant to their patients. In the case of Madelon and Mrs Brown, the nurse found another woman in the same community who also wanted to check in on Mrs Brown, thereby creating a solution “where neighbor to neighbor they supported each other which saved a lot of time, a lot of money and built social bonds within that community”.

This level of agency gives employees a sense of ownership that translates to higher performance and employee satisfaction. Heiman’s terms this ‘the founder feel’,  and argues that the notion of building something from scratch and working for oneself is what drives the younger generation of today. The question then, is how can managers give their employees the founder feel? What tools are available that can help transition a team from passive worker bees to problem solvers and active participants?

New Power and the Employee Feedback Loop

For most employees today, the world of work bears a close resemblance to that of their parents. Change is implemented from the top down and feedback comes in the form of an annual performance review. This is in stark contrast to how employees experience the world in their personal lives. Rather than acting as passive consumers who are told what to buy and how to be entertained, the digital revolution now allows people to play a much more active role in these areas. Platforms such as Wikipedia, Reddit, Uber and Etsy empower and encourage us to share ideas, leave reviews, customize, create and grow experiences to suit our unique needs

Employers today are beginning to appreciate this disparity and are taking steps to shape the employee experience towards greater participation. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is by investing in employee engagement software such as TINYpulse. TINYpulse elevates employee voices by providing a platform on which to share ideas and comment on suggestions for improvement within the organization.  

In his book, Heimans presents TINYpulse as an antidote to the lack of empowerment at work. “There is this need to close that gap and services like TINYpulse are doing that by providing opportunities for bi-directional meaningful feedback; they’re allowing people to exercise their agency and that’s very powerful.”

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Final Thoughts

Transforming the power structure within an organization is never an easy task. And even when this is achieved, the new model may solve some problems but also pose a new set of business challenges. The key to success lies in understanding and adjusting the direction that power flows from in a way that addresses the needs of your organization.

Rather than ‘throw out the traditional exercise of authority’, Heimans advocates for finding a balance between old and new power principles. “What we now need to build is a new power repertoire alongside the old and learn how to blend and combine the best of old power to new power.”


Have a question for our experts? Do you know a Leadership Warrior we should talk to?

Send me an email at dearandrew@tinypulse.com and I'll try to get your question on the show. If you know an expert we should talk to, I'd love to know.



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