BIGS Welcomes Lincoln Center’s Henry Timms for a Discussion on “New Power”

Keith Bender, Contributor

BIGS hosted the CEO of New York’s 92nd Street Y and newly-named President of the renowned Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts for a discussion of themes from his national bestseller, New Power. Keith Bender (MBA ’20) reports.

What can an MBA student learn from Boaty McBoatface?

Nothing short of the “key way of understanding our age—that what’s really shifted isn’t technology, it’s how we think about power,” said Henry Timms, president of New York’s 92nd Street Y and president-elect of Lincoln Center, during a campus visit on February 27.

Timms, who has written for the Harvard Business Review, made his speaking debut at HBS in an event hosted by the Business Ideas for Generational Shifts club (BIGS) and the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, where he is a Leadership Fellow.

The British research vessel famously slated to be named via an internet competition in 2017 enjoyed her maiden voyage as a case protagonist in Aldrich during a discussion of themes from Timms’s national bestseller, New Power: How Anyone Can Persuade, Mobilize, and Succeed in Our Chaotic, Connected Age.

Timms argued that traditional models and values of power have undergone foundational shifts in recent years. “Old Power” is concentrated, leader-driven, and functions like a currency that can be held; “New Power” is diffused, peer-driven, and operates “like a current—something you can never quite own, but if you shape it, you can shape outcomes in your favor.”

Timms explained that New Power draws strength from a set of values—transparency, the wisdom of the crowd, maker culture, and short-term affiliation—that radically depart from an Old Power value set that includes managerialism, expertise, and exclusivity.

New Power values applied to New Power operating models have changed the face of commerce—accelerating regulatory acceptance for Airbnb, for example—and mobilized millions in service of social movements. “It is not a coincidence that the three largest protests in U.S. history have been in the last three years—think about short-term affiliation,” Timms said.

Meanwhile, Britain’s crowdsourced christening-gone-awry of an arctic research vessel is a lighthearted illustration of the effects of New Power. The naming campaign—launched via press release (“Quick tip for the future,” Timms said, “If you ever want to launch a social media campaign, a press release probably isn’t the best idea”)—largely yielded an innocuous, enduring anecdote of late-2010s internet culture.

But Timms cautioned that New Power is not categorically democratizing and collectively empowering. When New Power values are adopted and harnessed by Old Power models, “we’re beginning to see lots of people engaging at scale but leading to less democratic outcomes,” he said.

Timms invoked an example of this paradox that will be familiar to RC students of LCA. “The greatest act of philanthropy in the history of mankind, one could argue, is the contribution of data that all of you make to Facebook every day,” Timms said. “Facebook has an amazing participatory model, but its values are very Old Power […] there is a real dissonance with their values.”

And for RC students of BGIE, Timms offered China as an example of a state in which high online collaboration and communication serve Old Power values to the effect of less democratic outcomes.

He cited the nascent Sesame Credit program, an individual rating system in which citizens are awarded points “if you do things that are pro-social in the view of the [Chinese Communist] Party, and […] these points will then translate into your opportunities in the world.”

Timms closed his remarks by challenging students to consider where Harvard Business School lands on a matrix of Old Power and New Power models and values today and where it should register in five years.

Attendees understood this challenge as one that Timms faces, too, as the leader of an eminently Old Power cultural institution.

“There are tensions between Old and New Power in an institution that has finite reach by its nature—you can only put so many people in the seats of these halls,” said Ethan Karetsky (MBA ’20). “I think at Lincoln Center that he’s wrestling with that tension in trying to incorporate new values into such an old model.”

At the end of the discussion, audience members mingled with Timms and chatted amongst each other about what a post-Boaty McBoatface world meant for HBS.

“I’m extremely glad [we] had the discussion on how HBS could potentially improve,” said Rachel Brown (MBA ’20). “This was a top-three speaker event I have been to at HBS so far.”

Keith Bender (MBA ’20)is originally from Scottsdale, Arizona. Prior to enrolling at Harvard Business School, he was a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he studied English and wrote for the Harvard Crimson and Satire V, and he still crosses the river often to get lost in Widener Library.