In the 21st century, who sets the agenda wins

USA Feb 14, 2020, 02.03 PM(IST) Written By: Wajahat Qazi

Leadership Photograph:( Zee News Network )

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In the 21st century where technology allows for communication at the click of a mouse and where information is commoditised, real power and effectiveness lie in agenda-setting.

In strictly instrumental terms leadership and power are of immense importance for outcomes. So is management. The 21st century with ongoing revolution in informatics renders the nature, form and application of the troika of leadership, management and power all the more salient. How, for example, can each be exercised prudently in a given organisational setting? Consider power first. What does the term or concept mean? An elusive concept, power can perhaps best be defined by an illustration: A has power over B if A can make B do something. There is an element of coercion involved here (or there can be a carrot or an inducement involved).  

Stretching the hypothesis further, in a given organisational setting, a manager can employ power- positional or hierarchical- to direct subordinates toward an organisational goal. But, this management approach is predicated on the power that is vested in the manager by virtue of a hierarchy. The moment this ‘transaction’ is over and the context changes, the manager loses this power. 

And, if exercised in an ungainly manner can redound negatively and undercut organisational goals in the process. Positional and hierarchical power is then ephemeral. Enter leadership here. Can it be more useful, dexterous and more potent than management?

The concept which contains an element of management but is not management is a different ball game. By its very nature and meaning, leadership means ‘to lead’. But, what is at issue is how to lead- through power-positional, charismatic or other forms?  

While management and the exercise of power are more or less technical and somewhat mechanical functions- the former more than the latter, and the best form of power is obscured power, leadership is a skill, an art. And best leadership is one that sets the agenda. Agenda setting power, delineated by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, is real power. This is not to discount power and management. These are and remain important in their own right but can be held to be mere corollaries to agenda-setting leadership.

The question here is: How to exercise this form and kind of leadership?

The ‘answer’ lies in deft and sagacious exercise of power and management in a given organisational setting. Broken down, this means framing and reframing issues and themes in a way that not only generates a buy-in but also amplifies organisational goals. 

Agenda setting power through framing and reframing also means generating ownership of desired organisational goals by all of its members. Key here is the employment of an idiom and a narrative that each member feels his or her own. This is not to imply or suggest cynical manipulation but the power of narratives and ideas that resonate in and among all. Calling for great skill and nuance, this approach to agenda-setting simplifies organisational and institutional complexities to idioms that are easily understood and hence, to repeat, generate a buy-in.

Central to agenda setting then is crafting narratives, breaking frames and reframing issues. There is an abstractness about this form of power. This, however, does not detract from its potency: even though agenda-setting power is intangible and cannot be measured but its impact can be felt through the vitals of an organisation, determining its purpose, rationale and goals. While agenda-setting power can be the litmus test of leadership, it does not cancel out management which remains essential to the day to day issues of the organisation.

The question now is: who can or should set the agenda? The conventional view would be people at the top of the pecking order or hierarchy of an organisation. But, this is a sterile and myopic view of agenda-setting leadership. This leadership must be an organisation-wide one that takes into account all its facets and people. As such, it is an integrated approach to leadership, minimal use of structural power and coercive aspects of the organisation.

In the contemporary world, defined by hyper-competition among and between organisations, agenda-setting leadership can constitute the ultimate sustainable advantage differentiating a firm from its competitors comprehensively and holistically. If the agenda that is set is robust, a given firm can be the torchbearer and standard-setter in an industry leaving others catching up or following the agenda of the trendsetting firm.

Agenda setting power is thus in the nature of an intangible resource where copying, imitating by others becomes academic: real and sustainable leadership –both intra firm and inter-firm- is conferred upon a firm by virtue of being an agenda-setter. When viewed this way, setting an agenda becomes the path that others can only follow, becoming a critical resource, albeit an intangible one that allows an organisation to be a win consistently, across time and space. In the 21st century where technology allows for communication at the click of a mouse and where information is commoditised, real power and effectiveness lie not in superior management techniques or conventional exercise of power, but in agenda-setting. In the final analysis than, in the 21st century who sets the agenda wins!

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 

Wajahat Qazi

Wajahat Qazi is particularly interested in politics, global security and political economy. He is a wanderer and fancies himself to be a wannabe writer.