Empower People to Innovate

 Graphic: Trevor Melton

Graphic: Trevor Melton


For our purposes, people have power in their lives when they believe they have choices for achieving their destiny. Three stories illustrate how a perceived lack of power pervades our society.

A few years ago, we staged a three-day DesignShop at the Leadership Center. Among others, a principal of a Nashville charter school attended. At the end of the second day, she approached me in tears, confessing: 

Carter, I’ve felt miserable for two days, and I’ve kept asking myself why. I just realized you’ve been asking me to dream, and I had forgotten how to dream. I’ve got it back now, and I’m never going to lose it again.

J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, shares many poignant stories showing how people in the heartland feel they control little in their lives. They believe they’re playing a game rigged against them. Taking any escape, even opiates seems perfectly acceptable behavior.

Vanderbilt University made a huge commitment to “immersion,” an approach in which professors and students act as peers in an ungraded student-led learning experience. Despite the advantages, compulsive students feel lost in the process and continue to obsess about test scores. For them, an ungraded, creative curriculum feels dangerous. They struggle to embrace their power in this situation.

So, school principals, Ohio hillbillies, and elite Vanderbilt students struggle to believe they have the power to make choices. 

Good luck convincing impoverished students in public school they have a choice to become successful college students! The lack of power in their lives persuades otherwise. Creating power in the school system for students, teachers, and administrators—that is a fundamental challenge. 

Sadly, students and teachers could achieve far more than they do now, but they routinely settle for less. The education system beats down the power of individual initiative. The system maintains control, and it prevents higher levels of order from emerging.

For the past three years, we’ve conducted annual DesignShops for Antioch Middle School. Principal Celia Conley enthusiastically disperses power in her school. Each fall, her teachers, and administrators take more responsibility. They establish agendas and hold each other accountable. They organize task forces, set learning goals, and ensure learning happens everywhere. As a result, students return to school each year even more eager to learn. 

The uptick in released potential illustrates the school’s culture shifting towards innovation. Because of the nudging in the system, people in the school culture believe they can make a difference. They come together as a community and in the process release waves of potential. 

Sharing power matters—it is critical to innovation.


Carter Andrews helps businesses and communities improve complex systems. He champions collaborative design that features strong participation by diverse participants. Download his paper Leadership for High-Complex Systems in Future Ready Nashville to dive into the world of complexity.

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