Mark Zuckerberg’s Favorite Scholar Asks the Ultimate Question: How Do We Get Power and How Do We Use It?

The question isn’t who has it right now. The question is if it’s still attainable.

Moisés Naím first discovered the fickle nature of power back in 1989, when he was appointed the minister of trade and industry in Venezuela. “In theory, I was a very powerful member of the government,” he says. “But in practice, I was constantly bumping into limits and constraints that prevented me from doing what needed to be done.”

At the time, he chalked this up to his inexperience as a politician, not to mention the dysfunction in Venezuela’s government ranks. But then he went to work as executive director of the World Bank, where he met with officials from various countries, explaining to each what had to be done before he could grant a loan. “I would look at the faces of bewilderment and recognize myself in them,” he says. “I discovered that what I felt as a minister was more universal. That power—even for those who have lots of it—is not easy to use.”

In the years since, Naím has studied power with the keen eye of a journalist (he served for 14 years as the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy) and the rigor of an academic. In 2013, he shared his findings in the best-selling book, The End of Power, which Mark Zuckerberg selected to be the first read in his “Year of Books.”

“Because I was keenly aware that my thesis ran counter to the dominant narrative in the world today, which is that the powerful are more powerful than ever,” says Naím, “I went out of my to way to look for evidence, to write a book not long on opinions, but very heavy with statistics and evidence. The best social science of the 21st century.”

On a recent afternoon, Naím talked to Maxim about his work.

Lots of people have written about shifts in power—from west to east, entrenched authority figures to young activists, big corporations to tiny startups—but you argue that power is not just shifting. It’s slipping away. Decaying. Why do you say that?

To retain power, you have to have shields—unique assets—that protect you from challengers. If you’re Apple, you have a brand name and technology and design advantages that are hard to replicate. If you are J.P. Morgan, you have a huge balance sheet. But those shields are becoming less protective. Power has become easier to acquire, harder to use and easier to lose. That’s the central thesis of the book.

And this isn’t purely a result of social media and digital technology, right? In the book, you mention the diminished power of presidents, religious leaders, large-scale philanthropic foundations, even well-financed military forces.

Exactly. That is a very important point. I’d be foolish to deny the importance of social media, but it’s silly to say that just because people can communicate through Twitter and Facebook, that explains it all. The Internet is a tool and tools need users and users have motivations. We need to understand the other factors at work, the determinants of behavior and goals.

The Arab Spring is a good example. The world watched in awe as autocratic tyrants in North Africa started falling. And everyone thought it was because people had social media. In fact, there were other drivers: the emergence of a new middle class—a middle class better nourished, better educated, better informed and more prosperous. Different aspirations. Expectations. Less tolerance for corruption. The bottom line is there is profound demographic change, profound societal change, profound economic and international changes.

How does that affect today’s managers and business leaders?

The reality is in sharp contrast to the general perception that we live in a world in which big banks and big corporations are absolutely unbridled. There’s no denying that corporate power has increased, but there’s also no denying that corporations are facing many constraints. Take turnover rates. If your company ranks in the top 20% in its sector, the probability that it will fall from that top tier is now higher than ever. If you’re a CEO, the probability that you’re going to be fired is higher than ever.

It’s very important for those in power, those who want to have power, to understand that the old ways of using it and acquiring it are gone. Not long ago, I met with General Martin Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most powerful military officers in world, perhaps in history, and my talk to them centered not on how to manage power, but how to manage weakness: the weakness of their allies, the weakness in their own government, a government that was forced to shut down, one that was until recently unable to even approve a budget.

The armed forces need a government. So they need to manage that weakness, the weakness of their allies and, interestingly, they need to learn how to wield power in a world in which even their enemies are weak. Sometimes weak enemies are much harder to deal with than very strong, concrete enemies.

Yes, as you point out, military might is also less effective these days—particularly when it comes to combating Somali pirates, terrorist cells and foes armed with IEDs.

If we were having this conversation a year ago, no one would mention ISIS. Today ISIS is a paradigmatic example of a micropower that bursts onto the scene and transforms politics and security in the Middle East. But ISIS is also a good example of ‘easier to acquire, harder to use and easier to lose.’ You can already see how ISIS’s power has been degraded. A few months ago, it was at the gates of Bagdad, threatening to overrun the Iraqi army. Now, it’s on the run.

But, as you write, we now have fewer dictatorships than every before. So this decline in power can be viewed as a force for good, right?

The book describes trends that are easy to welcome and applaud: a world of more opportunity, a world of more possibility, a world in which individuals and groups that have been marginalized now have a voice. It’s a world in which a small group of young people can get together and launch a new company called Instagram while the traditional behemoth Kodak goes out of business.

There are a lot of positives. And then there is the glass-half-empty view. Too much diffusion and fragmentation of power creates situations where no one is in charge and those who wield just a little bit of power are capable of blocking the initiatives of others. You end up with situations where decisions that are necessary are delayed, deluded and ineffectual. And that’s bad.

But you don’t see gridlock and chaos winning out in the end. Why are you a glass-is-half-full guy?

We live in a world that is much better than it used to be—and we are continuing to see progress. We live longer. We are in better health. We are more literate and educated. That changes the scope, state and potential of human lives.

Photos by AP Photo / Luca Bruno