The Wealth of Ensemble

July 18, 2015 — 1 Comment

Adam Smith.
This is where my brain always starts.

Money PieAdam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. One of the seminal philosophical underpinnings of this country. There’s a singular “pie” of resources. It’s finite. We can all only have a single slice of the pie. Only if we work to grow the size of the pie can we get a bigger slice, or if I give some of my slice to you, or if I take yours, etc. In Wealth of Nations Smith is discussing economics, labor, and government…capitalism. So money, yes, but essentially power.

So when considering the struggles around power sharing in an ensemble-based arts organization, my brain always starts with Adam Smith: power tends to be viewed as a pie, we either all have equal slices or … wait a second!!!–your slice is bigger than mine and THAT SUCKS END OF STORY. ARRRGGGHHH!!!!

Which, of course, underscores 1) why the Wealth of Nations comparison is not the best analogy; and 2) why the equality mindset is such an unproductive approach to power sharing.

Power sharing is not about equality¹. We are not all equal. If we were, we would not see how differently White  and Black suspects are treated when in police custody. If we were, we would not need the Supreme Court to grant Same-Sex marriage rights.

We are not all equal in an arts organization. If we were, my resume and your resume would look exaPiectly the same.

But someone having more power does not mean someone else has her power taken away. Power is not shared like pie. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Power sharing is not about placing everyone on the exact same level. It is about acknowledging the experience and expertise each individual has, including oneself, and bringing the fullness of that “power” to the group. Sharing that power.

“Equal” means “same size slice.” But “equal” is not “fair.” It falsely promises ownership, isn’t  just or appropriate, and neither propels us forward nor makes us “better.”

Power sharing is as much about taking agency as much as it is making space for agency to be taken. Invitations made, invitations accepted—both ways. Responsibility is viewed for the collective more than for oneself. This doesn’t erase personal identity, it expands it and allows it to be expanded and affected. In this sense, one is never “solely responsible.”

But it must be shared. When space isn’t made for others, it’s the responsibility of the group to course correct. When agency isn’t taken, it is the responsibility of the group to course correct. Both situations are just as problematic, as they will result in reverting to a size-of-pie mindset and ensuing conflicts.

Does this rid us of job descriptions, to-do lists, systems of accountability, and the like? No, of course not, and please come out of the weeds.  🙂

Instead, let’s look at some of a memo Tony Hsieh, CEO for Zappos, wrote to the company in March 2015 regarding their transition to a holacracy management structure:

The right question is not: how can everyone have equal power? It is rather: how can everyone be powerful? ….

Here we stumble upon a beautiful paradox: people can hold different levels of power, and yet everyone can be powerful. If I’m a machine operator―if my background, education, interests, and talents predispose me for such work―my scope of concern will be more limited than yours, if your roles involve coordinating the design of a whole new factory. And yet, if within what matters to me, I can take all necessary actions using the advice process, I have all the power I need.

This paradox cannot be understood with the unspoken metaphor we hold today of organizations as machines. In a machine, a small turn of the big cog at the top can send lots of little cogs spinning. The reverse isn’t true―the little cog at the bottom can try as hard as it pleases, but it has little power to move the bigger cog. The metaphor of nature as a complex, self-organizing system can much better accommodate this paradox. In an ecosystem, interconnected organisms thrive without one holding power over another. A fern or a mushroom can express its full selfhood without ever reaching out as far into the sky as the tree next to which it grows. Through a complex collaboration involving exchanges of nutrients, moisture, and shade, the mushroom, fern, and tree don’t compete but cooperate to grow into the biggest and healthiest version of themselves.

the point is not to make everyone equal; it is to allow all employees to grow into the strongest, healthiest version of themselves. Gone is the dominator hierarchy (the structure where bosses hold power over their subordinates). And precisely for that reason, lots of natural, evolving, overlapping hierarchies can emerge―hierarchies of development, skill, talent, expertise, and recognition…

(emphasis above is mine)

Power sharing in this manner is not what we’re accustomed to in organizations or in American culture at large. Patriarchal hierarchy is deeply ingrained. Working against it leaves us feeling, at first, unbalanced, then uncomfortable, and possibly distressed. It is work that you have to commit to; that you have to believe in.

The “pay-off” I might refer to as the “wealth of ensemble,” and I believe it is worth it in the end.


¹Treading carefully. I don’t want anyone to mistake me: I know there is tremendous inequity and injustice that must be addressed directly and transparently within professional and personal spheres.

One response to The Wealth of Ensemble

    Jennifer Mendenhall July 18, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    A big yes. And. Just as in nature, there will be die off, partition, separation, a search for more fertile ground. So I think we all have a responsibility to actively select our surroundings, instead of expecting them to be handed to us by others. And, above all, balance is key. Thank you for a fascinating read.

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