Former Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Sweden Matthew Barzun joins Zibby to talk about his latest book, The Power of Giving Away Power, and how the best leaders are often the ones who don’t lord their power over others. Matthew shares how his experience with the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and his interactions with Queen Elizabeth sparked his research, as well as how their leadership style often inspires their supporters to be more willing to volunteer than accept payment for their efforts.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Matthew. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Power of Giving Away Power.

Matthew Barzun: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. How the Best Leaders Learn to Let Go, I should’ve said that originally. If I were to read you it, that’s what I would say. I would say it at the same time.

Matthew: It’s lovely to hear it in its shortened form.

Zibby: You have had the most interesting experiences professionally and personally. It’s amazing how many leaders you’ve worked with, how you’ve been all over the globe building businesses, finding new ways to do everything. Tell me about your decision to write this book. Why now? Why write the book?

Matthew: Why now? It’s interesting. You know this from your wonderful experience. By the time the book actually comes out and you’re able to talk about it like we are today, you’ve stopped writing it a long time ago. What motivated me to write it was, in my internet chapter and then my presidential politics chapter and then my diplomacy chapter, I kept seeing two things: a pattern and tone of behavior that I thought was so unbelievably destructive, just disempowering, awful that kept reasserting itself, good people behaving badly that I would see, myself included; and then I saw, not as often, but I saw a glimpse of this other way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and behaving. I didn’t have a word for it or an image for it at the time even that I started writing the book. I pretty much had an image for the pattern of behavior I would like to see less of, which I call the pyramid perspective. I think we’re all kind of aware of that. Its obvious form is top-down, lording power over other people or hording it to yourself. There are subtler forms of it, too, we can get into. It’s the world of top-down. It’s also the world of bottom-up. Same shape, just different direction. I didn’t yet have an image or an awareness of this alternative. Then I finally discovered one on the back of the US dollar bill, which is the constellation, which is this wonderful, old image from our nation’s founding that I went down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, learned all about. Then I had something to use.

Zibby: Now we know all about it, so that’s really good.

Matthew: This wonderful reader emailed and said, “You must know this famous Aristotle quote.” I was like, “I wish I did, but I didn’t.” The Aristotle quote is something like, the soul never thinks without an image. The soul never thinks without an image. I thought, wow, that rings true. We all know the pyramid image. What is another image we could have to replace it to show a different kind of order and a different kind of stability than the order and stability provided by the pyramid?

Zibby: Very interesting. I love that. You had this paragraph in the beginning, I just wanted to read it out loud if that’s okay. You said — well, I should ask you. Is that okay? Yes?

Matthew: Oh, yes.

Zibby: “We think we must horde power before someone else takes it and that we must lord it over others. We’ve not only come to value the consolidation and preservation of power; as the best kind of leadership, we’ve come to believe it’s the only kind, that it is leadership. How crazy. All we have to do is look around to see that there are other kinds of leaders who have adopted a very different mindset about uncertainty. They don’t try to ignore it, avoid it, or factor it out. They factor it in radically.” I loved that. Then you go into all of this about your pyramid versus constellation mindset and how important it is to see things differently, which I loved. You also talk so much about the power of connection. I think my favorite part was with Queen Elizabeth when she felt sort of disintermediated. Maybe that’s the wrong word. Something came in between her and the crowd. She used to get the adoring eyes of the crowd when they would take her picture. They’d put the camera away. Because of the phones, she wasn’t even really locking eyes with them at all. She was feeling sad about it. Talk to me about this level of connection.

Matthew: Disintermediated, that is exactly the right word. I should’ve used that. I’m sitting there in my ludicrous fancy outfit that we Americans — maybe you wear it on your wedding or something, but never again, and a top hat. Mercifully, you’re allowed to take off the top hat when you actually meet with the queen. I had come in with my wife Brooke on a horse-drawn carriage into Buckingham Palace. It was a weird and wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. All these tourists are snapping photos of us hoping that we were royal and important. We were neither, but they didn’t know that. We get in. I said, “What’s it like? You do that every day.” She said, “They’ve always had cameras.” Then she said, “But they used to just bring them up, click them, and put them down.” She had this white-gloved hand. She puts it over her eyes. She holds it up as she finishes the thought, which is, “And now they put them up, and they never take them down. I miss seeing their eyes.” I thought that was so wonderful and such an important lament for the times we’re all in, not just the queen. Never have we been so connectable. Never have we felt so disconnected, this connection paradox that I think we’re all dealing with one way or another. How do we reestablish those connections and make them meaningful?

Zibby: And that you need them to be a really good leader. It’s very hard to lead into a vacuum of nameless, faceless people. It’s one person at a time, really. If you don’t connect with any of them, who are you leading?

Matthew: That’s right. A few weeks after the queen, I met with someone who is sort of the opposite of the queen — this is a compliment; doesn’t sound like it — Jimmy Carr, who has become a really good friend. He has a couple Netflix specials. He is a hilarious, cringy stand-up comic. Half the stuff, you’re just like, I can’t believe you said that, Jimmy. I hadn’t met him at the time. We were seated next to each other. I asked him this question I’ve always wanted to ask stand-up comedians. How many jokes get a laugh if you’re trying out new stuff? They never try it out in New York or London. They try it out in places like Louisville or Liverpool or whatever.

Zibby: You said three out of seven or something, right?

Matthew: Three out of seven. I was like, okay, that’s really good to know.

Zibby: Or three out of ten, rather. Three out of ten.

Matthew: Yeah, sorry, three out of ten. Three out of ten get a laugh. I thought that was interesting. Then he said something much more interesting. He said, “You know, jokes are strange things, Matthew.” I was like, “Tell me more.” He said, “If you play a song and no one likes it, it’s still a song. If you put on a play and everybody walks out, it’s still a play. If you tell a joke and nobody laughs, it’s just a sentence.”

Zibby: I loved that, yes.

Matthew: Isn’t that cool? I was like, “Oh, Jimmy, did Groucho Marx or someone famous say that?” He’s like, “No, it was me.” I was like, “I’m going to tell anyone and everyone I meet.” To me, it’s just what you were talking about. The comedian does his or her part. The audience member does his or her part. Together, they make a joke. We know that. To your point on leadership, so much of leadership is just sentences. We have these tech platforms that allow us to just throw sentences at each other. It’s easy to pick on the tech platforms, which is trendy now. It’s like, this is us. We are the ones deciding to hurl non-connective sentences at one another all day long. That’s us doing it aided and abetted by the technology, but don’t blame the machines. Blame us.

Zibby: I know. Sometimes I’m like, this is such a bizarre conversation I’m having. I’m saying a sentence, and then twenty minutes later, someone’s saying one more sentence. Then an hour later, I say the third sentence. Texting, it makes no sense. Finally, I’m just like, I’m picking up the phone and calling her.

Matthew: Crazy.

Zibby: Frustrating. It’s also a waste of time. All those times to unlock the — anyway, don’t even get me started on this whole thing. Yes, I agree with that. I also found it so interesting, all your research in the context of the Obama election of volunteers and how, actually, more volunteers showed up when you didn’t pay them and how volunteers are a more motivated group than the paid people, in fact. I actually was talking to my Zibby Books launch team. We have these new books ambassadors. I’m like, “You know, the guy I’m interviewing later today says you should make them all volunteers. Maybe we should just make them all volunteers.” Tell me about that.

Matthew: It actually ties into all of the great work that you’re doing. The old way in volunteer-land — this is democrat or republican. I think it’s basically the same. The old way, you would say, just to pick a hundred people, hey, how many people would like to take five hours out of their Tuesday night, come sit next to a total stranger, and make unsolicited phone calls to total strangers all night? That is a weird subset of humanity that chooses to raise their hands, usually both hands. You get five people out of a hundred. They are what were known over the decades as political volunteers. They’re weird. What the Obama campaign did, which was really clever, was it radically lowered the barriers of what it meant to be a volunteer. You picture parents who are really busy at home. They’re not going to spend five hours on a Tuesday night calling strangers. The ask was much simpler. It was like, hey, would you be willing to call five people you already know who happen to live in swing states over the course of the next week? Oh, maybe, sure, I’ll try. You can squeeze that in whenever you can, and they did. Actually, they found it rewarding. The reward for that work was more meaningful work. The magic combination was, lower the barriers to participation, but then raise the expectations of what it means to participate. If you repeat that pattern and tone over and over again, you can have really big and dramatic results.

Zibby: Interesting. So the answer is pay or don’t pay — this is like intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, right?

Matthew: There’s that famous — I forget which of those behavioral science books — I love them all.

Zibby: I think it’s Leon Festinger or something, maybe.

Matthew: They blend together sometimes in my addled brain, but the one where they do that famous test. It’s two people trying to lift a couch into their dorm room. They’re like, hey, can you give me help and lift this one flight of stairs? Eighty percent of the people say yes. You say the exact thing and you’re like, and I’ll pay you five bucks, and the response drops to twenty percent. All of a sudden, you’re asking people to put a monetary value on what was going to be a favor, and so it distorts — that’s a thing. In the case of the Obama campaign, the whole world just volunteering was the whole thing, everyone knew that, paid or not paid. It was trusting the unpaid ones. To treat them and give them access to the voter file as if they were paid members of staff was the big insight that they adopted early that made such a big difference, to open up, let go of control. The fear always is that, yeah, but, they might… It’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah, but it’s amazing what can be built if you give away that power.

Zibby: Obviously, you have so many unique perspectives on leadership. You’ve talked to so many leaders. They’ve blurbed your book and all this stuff. One thing you said was that a lot of leaders are afraid to signal that they don’t know what they’re doing when oftentimes, nobody knows what they’re doing. That immediately puts up a barrier between them and everybody else. The future is often uncertain, especially in startup mentality and different organizations. To have a leader who suggests otherwise is almost immediately inauthentic because it’s not true. You can’t trust them from the start, somehow. Not can’t trust, but — anyway, talk to me about the power of being open about the realities of running a business.

Matthew: The first three words of the book, they were the last three words I wrote, weirdly. You know how that works. You do the introduction, or I did, last having seen where it ended up. The first three words are, “Pretending is exhausting.” It just struck me in so many different realms: parenting, marriage, career, you name it. To the extent that we’re pretending, it just crowds out all this energy that we need to be investing in other much more productive ways. Especially in the realm of leadership, we were encouraged to sort of fake it until we make it or measure what you treasure or treasure what you measure, all these other memorable and deeply misleading bits of advice that we had passed down to us and that we either explicitly or more subtly pass on to the next generation. The biggest company in the world in terms of transactions, Visa, as a constellation of giving up power, got Bank of America to not have any more power in the system of what became Visa. It was called BankAmericard first. These little Podunk banks would have just as much right to participate on an equal footing as they would. That was huge and weird. They did it. They took that leap. Wikipedia, we talk about. Up against the richest company in world, Microsoft and Encarta — I’m old, I remember Encarta. Many of your listeners won’t because they’re younger — and then Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the oldest companies in the world. They had tried to factor out uncertainty in their business model and planned for it.

Along comes Jimmy Wales and his team, radically open. They were going to pay you nothing to write something, charge us nothing to read it. Time and time again, if you are willing to take this leap — the tricky part and what gets misunderstood is that somehow, this is an invitation to chaos or a thousand flowers bloom or see whatever happens. In all those cases, Visa, Wikipedia, the internet, Alcoholics Anonymous, others that I highlight in the book, some of the greatest innovations and organizations the world have ever seen — we use them every day; we benefit from them — they brought an incredible rigor, I love that word, a rigor to what they’re doing. It is a miracle that Wikipedia isn’t some corkboard of the internet. Look, they have their issues and blind spots. They’re honest about that. They want encyclopedia articles. If you put up some self-promotional stuff, over the course of three weeks, it will be gone. It will, over time, self-correct and produce encyclopedia-like articles. Whether it’s the volunteer network you’re talking about or the Obama campaign being really rigorous about, let’s move the metrics that matter, that’s really important. You have to be open and rigorous. If you’re just open, it’ll be like some bad middle-school science project.

Zibby: We have enough of those around here.

Matthew: With all due respect to your son who’s off-screen.

Zibby: We have enough of those. Amazing. What else are you doing? Your whole CNET experience was so interesting. I love that you went and presented to HBS about the case, and then the internet collapsed the next day. That was awesome. Not awesome, but just so typical of the place and time. You’ve done so many things. You have this book. What is your goal now? Next couple years, what do you want to do? What types of places do you want to lead? Do you want to lead? What’s on your mind?

Matthew: That’s a fun one. It’s so fun to be invited here and to talk with you. I’m out there trying to talk about the ideas so that people can agree with them, disagree with them, pull them into their lives. Probably, the most common question and suggestion I’ve gotten, which has already led, in my mind anyway, to write a follow-up, but that’ll take a while, is — there are three groups of readers I’ve incurred. Group one is, I pretty much live my life this way anyway in the constellation-y — it’s worth saying at this point, the constellation mindset is the choice to not think that you’re a brick in a pyramid, but to think that you’re a star and I’m a star and the people around us are stars. We’re distinct. We can make connections between us to create something more useful, more powerful than we could on our own. That symbol back at the founding of our country, that is the symbol that — right underneath on the back of the dollar bill is written “E pluribus unum.” From many, one. From many stars, one constellation. Not, from many bricks, one pyramid. In the pyramid world, you either fit into the pyramid plan or you are left out. The magic thing about a constellation is you can stand out as yourself and fit into something bigger. You’ve got folks who are like, I didn’t have a name or an image for it, but I’ve lived that way. The second group of folks are saying, gosh, I’ve done pretty well by the pyramid. I’ve played that style game up, out, in, out, ranking, rating, sorting, sifting pretty well, but it’s exhausting. I’m open to trying something new. Then the third group, which is fascinating, is like, nope. Arms folded like, I don’t want to make a leap. The pyramid’s serving me pretty well. I’m making my way up it. No, thank you.

I learned from all three types of readers, but especially, those first two are particularly fruitful. So many of the questions are, hey, I work in a big pyramid-style institution, but my team wants to create more of a constellation. How might we start to do that in a practical, tactical way? You know from the books you’ve done, most of my favorite bits got cut out of this book. They’re sitting on the cutting room floor. Most of the stuff I cut out was this really practical, tactical stuff. I want to start getting that out there. The other thing, I listened to your wonderful interview with Senator Elizabeth Warren about the pinkie promise. I have always been a big fan of her work. I knew her writing, The Two-Income Trap, long before she ran for public office. I thought you did a great job with that and bringing out why she wrote that. She kept using one word. I understand why. I believe in everything she’s saying, but she’s like, join the fight. Join the fight. Join the fight. I get that. There are lots of things we need to fight for. There’s another kind of thing we can do as a group that isn’t fighting a fight or running a race. That’s the kind of thing I want to be involved with. The fight I picked with Teddy Roosevelt in the book — a sacred cow, right? It’s not the critic who counts. It’s the man or woman who’s actually in the arena whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood. Everybody loves that: Brené Brown, Barack Obama, John McCain, Nelson Mandela, LeBron James. I understand why that is such a romantic notion.

Something really important is missing, I think, Zibby. In that view of the world, you are forced into one of two choices: fight it out or sit it out. Be a bystander. I get that. If those are the only two choices, then okay, fine, I guess I’ll go fight it out. That is a gladiatorial framework. That’s what that thing is about. I think the other kind of work that we can be engaged with — I think you’re engaged in this work, which is making things together. Who’s going to make arenas and invite people to arenas? All that kind of work is really important. It doesn’t involve fighting. When people say to the next generation, life isn’t a sprint, it’s a — then we all say marathon. I’m always like, I get why sprints and marathons are different, but they’re mostly, in my view, the same. They’re a race in one set direction that you do all by yourself. I don’t think parenting is a race. You’re certainly not going to win it. Long-winded answer to your question.

The fun little trick that I used to play before COVID — you can do it on Zoom too. You get ten people together. You say, what’s the opposite of winning? Everyone says losing. Then you say, what’s the opposite of winning and losing? which is really the interesting part. Nine out of ten of us say, I don’t know, not playing. One out of ten of us says playing or laughing or learning or being. To me, the optimistic part is that once the nine out of ten of us hear that other person say playing or whatever they say, we’re like, oh, right. How silly that if you’re not winning and losing, you’re doing nothing. You don’t win parenting. You don’t win your career. You certainly don’t win a marriage, but if you tried to, you could lose one. All these things we actually value in life, you can’t win or lose. Why do we keep perpetuating that you’re either winning and losing or you’re sitting it out? If we can bring more awareness and energy and daylight to the act of making things together, that’s what I want to devote my time and energy to.

Zibby: I love it. I’d never really thought about my specific leadership strategy because I don’t really consider myself a leader. This Zibby Books company is a month old. Everything you said in the book is what I believe in and what works for me. I’m not saying it would work for everybody or in every kind of business. I know for me, it’s the anti-business. It’s the anti-corporation. We’re all just people. I know we were joking about this being your first Zoom, which of course is not true, and I fell for it. Having everybody here, you see we have our lives. We’re not one person at work and one person at home. You have to bring your whole self into what you do. When you do that, then everything works much better, I think.

Matthew: I agree. We didn’t get a chance to talk about, but the matron saint — I just want your listeners — this amazing woman — all this is going to connect back to Harvard Business School and Harvard Business Review who published, in 2003 — this woman is sort of forgotten about. She lived a hundred years ago. She is the matron saint of this book. I really want to write a whole book just about her. Harvard Business School asked two hundred leading gurus from academia, government, and business — this is 2003 — who are the gurus’ gurus? Number one, Peter Drucker. Many listeners would have heard of him. Most quoted leadership guy of the last century. Turns out, as you know as a reader of the book, that he had a guru all along. He admits this at the end of his life. This is the guru’s guru’s guru. By the way, she shows up not at all on Harvard Business Review‘s list of the gurus’ gurus, so not exactly known. She was writing a hundred years ago. America’s coming out of the global pandemic. Racial, economic, and social division everywhere she looks, raging debates about overreaching of big business, raging debates about government overreach on how to deal with big business. Sounds kind of familiar. She was amazing. She was the most sought-after speaker on the CEO circuit of her day. She has very practical, tactical advice for all of us today, which was getting at your point on what to do in a meeting, basically, whether it’s on Zoom or in person.

She says, four possible outcomes of a meeting, and only one of them is worthwhile. Bad outcome number one, Zibby, you try to win the meeting. It’s like, well, why did you invite anyone else? Bad outcome number two, you acquiesce because Jane or John is super fired up. Just let them have their way. No, that’s no good because you’re denying them your unique perspective. Bad outcome number three, compromise, which I know we’re all taught to seek out. She’s like, not really. Compromise, best case, you leave that meeting with a fraction of what you came in with. Mary Parker Follett says the only reason we should ever gather around a virtual or real table is to cocreate, to make something together. Then that magic happens. I know you’re seeing that as you’re growing your business. If you make something with another group of people — it doesn’t have to be a book or a podcast or anything as tangible as that, but it could be. It could be, make a determination. It could be, make a product roadmap. You name it. If you make something together, you are forever part of it. It is forever part of you. As I reflect on her wisdom, in the little cheat sheet I have written down here next to my Zoom meetings, I try to bring three expectations into every meeting. Number one, expect to be needed. In our lingo, bring your whole self. No one else can. Number two, expect to need others. That’s why you’re in a meeting. Crucially, number three, expect to be changed. To me, that’s the reciprocal one from that, bring your own truth. If you have made something in a meeting, you will leave that meeting just a little bit different than you entered it. The next time you bring your whole self, it’s an enhanced self and not the same old stagnant self.

Zibby: It’s like an old-fashioned pinball machine. You see all the things. You’re hitting. You go off in a slightly different direction, but you’re still in the same machine.

Matthew: Ooh, that’s a cool image. Aristotle would be proud. I didn’t understand pinball. I just was talking to my wife about this. I was always too short. When they were around, I couldn’t even see up. By the time I got to the height, they had sort of done their thing.

Zibby: I’m barely over the height now. Oh, gosh, I have to go to school pickup. Last question, advice to aspiring authors?

Matthew: Oh, my goodness, I can’t stay in the way of you and school pickup given the topic of this wonderful podcast. I will pass on the advice that I was given by a mentor of mine, James Harding, a wonderful British guy. He used to be the top journalist at the BBC. He said, “Hey Matthew, if you’re writing an op-ed for some newspaper, you could write about three or five things in twelve hundred words. If you’re writing a book, it has to be about only one thing.” That’s hard, as you know.

Zibby: That is really hard. Yeah, it’s really hard.

Matthew: I don’t know if I succeeded in doing it, but I really tried to. All the things on the cutting room floor are all my darlings that I thought were really great. Maybe for another book, but they didn’t serve that one core idea.

Zibby: You should put them together as a PDF and give it when people join a newsletter or something.

Matthew: Thank you.

Zibby: Are you forever changed?

Matthew: I am forever changed. See? Yes.

Zibby: There you go.

Matthew: Thank you. Thank you. Good luck with the school pickup.

Zibby: Thank you. It was great to meet you.

Matthew: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks for the podcast. Buh-bye.

Matthew: Bye.



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