Our Leaders Need To Be Mavericks: Unorthodox Thinkers Familiar With Protean Power And How To Use It.

Protean Power: Exploring the Uncertain World and Unexpected in World Politics is part of a series of books published by Cambridge University Press focused on international relations. But the relevance of the book extends well beyond the field of international relations, as I will try and make clear in a series of articles that review it.

The book, divided into five parts, is a series of essay style contributions by a dozen professors in International Management, International Studies, and Political Science. It begins with two chapters on theory and ends with a concluding chapter, all by the two editors of the book. The other chapters illustrate the theories and offer insights based on real world events and situations. The titles of those parts give you some clue of what is to follow: Protean Power: Embracing Uncertainty; Mixed Worlds: Agility Meets Ability; and Protean Power between Risk and Uncertainty.

The Preface notes that policy makers are frequently blindsided by the unexpected, but Greek mythology offers a way out. Proteus, said to be the first-born son of Poseidon, was able to tell the future, once captured. But, preferring freedom, he was able to change shape, morphing as soon as he was seen.

The authors coined the term Protean Power. It describe the actions of agile actors able to cope with uncertainty that bedevils and frustrates those who aim to exercise control power under assumed conditions of risk.

They contrast protean power to control power saying, unlike relatively predictable control power, protean power stems from processes that are “versatile”, or that tend to change frequently and easily. And it arises in uncertain contexts in which previous performance and experience does not provide a reliable foundation for future moves.

Importantly, the authors also state that “rather than emerging as a competing force, protean power is often closely related to and co-evolves with control power.”

They add, protean power is “often a response to crises that catch everyone by surprise” — times during which creative moves can have a game-changing impact.

In practice, protean power “stops us from assuming away the unknown. Instead, it makes us focus on how actors handle the unexpected with improvisation and innovation”, deepening uncertainty in the process. As innovations emerge the winning ideas are converted from novelty into new forms of power and, perhaps, control power. In a business context this would explain why, faced with disruption, incumbents often lose power to challengers.

The authors go on to note, “often control and protean power processes unfold in variegated and complex relationships that are difficult to disentangle” and “nothing about protean power is inevitable; all of it is unpredictable”. But its signatures in the real world are real. They are missed because often they are not looked for.

Interestingly, both types of power are at play in normal times and in times of crisis. And the way actors behave in response to other actors determines the potential outcomes of both forms of power.

An Interesting question to ask is what kind of behaviours were, or could be, game-changers and change existing power structures?

Having published my review of Invent and Wander: The Collective Writings of Jeff Bezos only yesterday, I find this question very interesting.

Whilst Amazon seeks both incremental innovation and game-changing innovations, it is the later that has led to the success of Amazon, with a massive impact on the power structures in retailing. And I suggest Bezos applies both control and protean power.

Previously I have written about the way some leaders facing a crisis remain undaunted, and we ran the conference Undaunted: How Successful Leaders Face Up to Wicked Problems and Avoid Predictable Surprises. Here is a collection of related articles.

Now I refer to such leaders as Maverick Leaders. They demonstrate unorthodox responses to a crisis. They seek game-changing solutions that demand innovation. They apply protean power and control power, whilst the losers — usually the incumbents — tend to apply only control power, or very little protean power. The losers tend to be obsessed with performance and efficiency which includes cutting costs, doing more efficiently that which no longer works or is devalued.

The word “maverick” may have negative connotations to some. It should not. It simply describes a person who is able to think in an “unorthodox” way — a person with the mindset needed to exercise protean power when an orthodox mindset focused on control power is in insufficient.

In what was already described as a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) climate, made far worse by the pandemic and the global economic crisis currently unfolding, there is a great need for leaders that understand protean power, not only control power. As the orthodox gives way to the unorthodox, every leader needs to become a Maverick Leader with a deep understanding of protean power and how to embrace it.

Further instalments of this book review will follow over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, join Andy Wilkins and I for a free online introduction to the Maverick Leader workshop program for Directors and Executives who need to face up to wicked problems and avoid predictable surprises — every director and executive given the current crises and the problems that must be grappled with. REGISTER NOW

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Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett

Advocating the purpose of all enterprise should be contributions to sustainable widely shared prosperity measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.