Authentic leadership in a New Power world: Henry Timms visits Comm Lead

Article by Kanhaiya Maheshwary
Video by Daley Wilhelm & Alex Stonehill

“I can be good at selling. I could sell soap… but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Those offhand words from Henry Timms may be what stuck with me most from his visit last weekend to UW’s Communication Leadership Master’s Program.

Timms co-authored the bestselling book New Power, which explores “how power works in our hyperconnected world—and how to make it work for you,” The book can be read as a manual for those trying to lead in a crowd-driven world, making it the perfect complement for Comm Lead’s first core class, which focuses on personal narrative and leadership styles.

During his visit, Timms offered more than just erudite insights on the vast social and technological changes afoot. Urged on by students hungry to understand his success as a community change-maker, he candidly reflected on his own journey, leading up to his ongoing stint as the President and CEO of 92nd Street Y (92 Y), a 144-year old non-profit and cultural center based in New York.

Under his leadership, 92 Y created the #GivingTuesday movement, the ripples of which were felt far and wide across the world. Over 40,000 organizations in over 71 countries adopted the movement and made it their own, thereby raising hundreds of millions of dollars for charity since 2012. The initiative also won a Cannes Lion at an international creativity forum. The actionable, connected and extensible nature of GivingTuesday’s success laid the foundation for the concept of New Power that Timms and co-author Jeremy Heimans explore in the book.

The Single Story Conundrum

On Saturday morning, the bio Anita Verna Crofts used to introduce Timms to Comm Lead core class “Leadership Through Community and Story” underlined his stupendous professional achievements.

But did it really tell his story accurately? As soon as he was introduced, Timms posed this question back to us students.

The off-script question not only drove the class to indulge in some thoughtful discussion, but also took everyone back to Chimamanda Adhichie’s TED Talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ which was mandatory viewing for the class earlier in the quarter.

 

The fast facts used to introduce Timms were not incorrect, but were definitely incomplete and more like the kind of ‘single story’ that Adichie criticizes in her TED talk. The problem with single stories is that, while they are not necessarily false, they are incomplete and paint a person in just one particular light. Timms’ introduction didn’t include elements of his personal life story, which are so vital in understanding how early incidents in someone’s life shape their vocation.

Timms tied the single story conundrum to social media platforms. “If you think about your own Instagram feed, there’s an argument that it’s fake. You are showing an incomplete narrative. You want to show yourself only in the best possible light,” he said.

His argument, endorsed by the class in subsequent discussion, was that social media is increasingly becoming a carrier of these single stories. In the pursuit of hoarding attention and likes, we are simply telling single-sided stories. And if the trend continues, it will create a very inauthentic world.

On Authentic Leaders and Authentic Leadership

“Are you really trying to change the world, or get famous?”

With this question, Timms opened up another new perspective for Comm Lead students. The people that we view as authentic leaders are just as human the rest of us, and are constantly battling a lot of contradictions. Timms pointed out that, on questioning, a lot of leaders would mention (1) a fulfilling career, (2) meeting one’s full potential, and (3) changing the world, as their top three priorities.

However, all three are self-contradictory.

“Are you really trying to change the world, or get famous?”

For every moment spent working towards a fulfilling career, leaders are losing time that they could have been spending it with their families. The antithesis of achieving one’s potential is counting one’s blessings — and if you feel fortunate for having achieved a lot, does that mean you stop working for more? Last but not the least, changing the world is a double-headed coin, the other side of which is feeding one’s ego. A majority of the leaders like the coverage and attention they get for doing philanthropic work, thereby massaging their egos. But are they really trying to change the world that propelled them into leadership positions?

Using Power Wisely

On Saturday evening Timms spoke more about New Power in a public conversation with Comm Lead Director Hanson Hosein. The book posits that old versions of power were more like a currency that’s owned by a few and closely guarded (think the dictatorship in North Korea, or bureaucratic working culture of many Fortune 500 companies). Meanwhile, the New Power that’s emerging today is participatory and peer-driven, and often employs new models of communication like social media (think of movements like #MeToo and the Arab Spring).

As a continuing comment on the book, Timms said that New Power must be channeled very carefully, because it can be extremely effective and can change the course of today’s world order. He gave the example of Brazil, where New Power is being used in contrasting ways: On one end, the book cites a digital therapy platform has been developed for connecting underprivileged women with professional therapists who want to volunteer their services. On the other end, Timms mentioned Jair Bolsonaro, who is being called ‘Brazil’s would-be dictator,’ and is using WhatsApp and Twitter to fuel aggressive campaigning by right-wing supporters. The same means, same country, but starkly different purposes.

In his parting words to Comm Lead, Timms was cautious not to let the optimism around New Power and hyper-connectedness build too much. His earlier comments about ego-driven leaders, and his personal reflection about how he couldn’t bear a career in sales, came back to me. As the examples from Brazil prove, these new power tools and structures are neutral — they can be forces for good or for bad. So we can’t get too caught up in the tools themselves, and we have keep ourselves honest about how we’re using them.

Timms said that leaders often close their speeches optimistically, but having seen the issues of the world at close quarters, he knows that the stakes are very high today and we must look at them realistically, or even pessimistically.

“Once in a while, pessimism is good,” he cautioned.

Henry Timms holding microphone addresses room full of seated Comm Lead students, with yellow New Power book in the foreground.

Timms addresses Comm Lead Cohort 18 in Anita Verna Crofts’ core class. (Photo by Hanson Hosein)

Alex StonehillAuthentic leadership in a New Power world: Henry Timms visits Comm Lead
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