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Study of Heartland's Unsung Heroes Finds Trust, Not Power, is Key

Anthropologist Karen Stephenson says soft power or trust yields innovation in metropolitan areas such as Kansas City. (Jay Castor/Pixabay)
Anthropologist Karen Stephenson says soft power or trust yields innovation in metropolitan areas such as Kansas City. (Jay Castor/Pixabay)
August 21, 2017

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When you want to make substantive changes to your community and do meaningful work, it's natural to first seek out the most powerful people in town.

But just concluded research from an anthropologist and data scientist suggests something different.

Karen Stephenson spent several months in Kansas City looking for what she calls key connectors – simply people who get things done.

She notes that her list of more than 200 key connectors doesn't mirror the typical who's who of local power brokers because money and notoriety aren't at the core.

"'Your word is your bond' is another kind of power,” she points out. “It's called soft power. But it's, in fact, more durable and more sturdy than ascribed power."

Stephenson explains the phenomenon by noting that innovation and entrepreneurship thrive when people are comfortable exchanging ideas and information. That doesn't necessarily occur in the presence of political and business leaders.

Stephenson has conducted similar research in other large metro areas, but this is the first work she's done in the Midwest.

The list of connectors she compiled in Philadelphia only contained a 1 percent overlap of the annual publication of the city's 100 most influential.

She says people who get things done are willing to go out on a limb with other risk takers who have a heart for their communities.

"That doesn't always happen with elected officials or ascribed positions in leadership positions like in companies and for-profits and not-for-profits,” she points out. “I'm not saying that it can't happen, I'm just saying that many times it isn't there."

Stephenson says hierarchies that were effective in the 1900s are giving way to more interconnected systems because innovation increases when people work laterally across trust-based networks.

Stephenson notes that while key connectors work in trust-based networks, they are also individuals who push beyond their comfort zones and establish diverse community relationships.

Kevin Patrick Allen, Public News Service - MO