The Progression of Power

Written by:

I just returned from spending a couple weeks in Egypt, and being there brought an interesting pattern to light. Egypt is unique in that it contains remnants of the oldest civilization on earth as well as some of the most revolutionary recent events. It made me think about how the power in society has increasingly gone from the few to the many, or in other words, from “power over” to “power with”, and we’re still on this evolutionary path. This has some profound implications for modern-day, Western business leadership.

The Historical Progression

The story starts in ancient Egypt, almost 3000 BC, where the rulers (pharaohs) seemingly did nothing for the people, but rather spent all of the money building temples to honor themselves. The commoners weren’t even permitted to come close to the temples. Judging by the massive pyramids and numerous, gigantic stone temples, there was lots of manual labor going on, and it was directed by the few elite, for the benefit of the few elite. The power and wealth definitely belonged solely to the rulers.

In contrast, when the Greeks and Romans showed up around 300 BC, they built temples in the Egyptian style, but added corridors around them for commoners to walk around the outside, peer in the doors, and touch the temple. This was a major shift, reflecting the Greeks’ and Romans’ understanding of the value of engaging the support of the people. In parallel, individuals were permitted to engage in business on their own behalf, where they kept the proceeds.

More recently, for several hundred years in Western society, church goers have gotten a seat inside the church, but they’ve generally deferred to a preacher or priest who is believed to be closer to God and therefore has inherent authority. This parallels the general practice in business that persists even today, where even though employees are generally treated and compensated well, they must defer to an authority, who is supposedly more capable. Even this is changing.

What’s Next?

Looking at the state of this trend today, people are increasingly choosing their own spiritual paths, rather than deferring to authority. By any historic measure, involvement in organized religion is in decline, yet Western society has embraced spirituality to a greater degree. In this new spirituality, each person is determining for themselves what they want to pursue. We’re seeing two branches of this trend.

The New Age is a spiritual movement that became strong in the United States in the 1990’s, and its foundation is the idea that the minds and spirits of the people are the creative forces in our world. This movement features extreme religious individualism, where doctrine and authority are simply not needed. Its basic practices are self-help techniques designed to empower followers, helping them heal themselves and become more god-like. As of the year 2000, a study reported in the New York Times stated that 68 million Americans had partaken in New Age practices and these participants were mainstream Americans, not individuals on the edge of society.

The emergence of the mega church is another significant indicator of the shift of power. Mega churches are defined as those that have more than 2000 people attend on a weekly basis, and there are more than 1300 such churches in the USA. These churches are customer oriented with opinion polls to guide which services should be offered and the topic of sermons. They are very democratic and non-hierarchical, and typically members refer to the senior minister by his or her first name. Members choose the services that they see as most interesting and useful in their lives, with no hindrance from authority or tradition. As of 2008, the average five-year growth rate of these churches was 50%, while membership at traditional churches continued to decline.

The popularity of the New Age movement and mega churches illustrate that people are deferring less to authority and instead relying on their own judgment. What does this have to do with business leadership?

Implications to Business Leadership

Modern business rewards the leaders who attract and retain the best talent and create an environment in which employees thrive. Business leaders can use the insight gained from modern spiritual trends to understand the changing beliefs and values of individuals, which will help them create environments which employees find attractive and coherent with their mindset. Employees perform their best when in an environment that is coherent with their values. Some of the lessons that business leaders can glean from spiritual trends are to give workers the freedom to shape how their work is done, provide more decision making authority to employees, and adopt a less authoritarian style.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
  Related Articles


  1. Richard  April 2, 2012

    Hi Jackie,

    Thank you for another insightful article!
    I guess the empowerment is all about allowing the individual to be an instrument of Love, meaning: To contribute what feels is best for the individual and the whole. Instead of using people as instruments for the good of a person in authority (and their relatively “compressed” perspective), rather have them see what they can contribute to the whole.

    Isn’t this exactly what Ontological Coaching is about? Seeing where the person could fit in best looking at their personal background, having the organization adjust to the person instead of the organization trying to fit the person in to a certain job? I love this “organic” way of organizing! Again: Spirituality is Organized Activity, and the organization model behind it is “Love” (but who understands what love wants without knowing it?)
    People should not fear to be themselves, to be that Love/Selfless Expression.

    Jackie, you always provide concrete examples within my “theoretical” framework.

    Hope you had a marvelous trip!


  2. Diane Chencharick  April 15, 2012

    I like your article, Jackie, and plan to link to it in a blog article I am writing on spirituality and leadership development for The Zen Leader blog. Well done!


Add a Comment