Out on the edge of the continent, on the site of a former evangelical retreat, there’s a camp where businesspeople confront issues of power and authority inside organizations — issues fundamental to the world of work. Upon arrival, participants forfeit their corporate identities. Upon departure, they lose sleep, crash cars, leave jobs. Here the rules of engagement are different, the mental and physical demands extreme. People who attend say it’s the weirdest place they’ve ever been. They say it’s just like their company.
Act One: Arrivals
It’s Saturday afternoon. the rain is crazy. and for the 50th time in 25 years, New Hope has virtually no chance of living up to its name.
New Hope is a strange place: people enter society in preassigned castes — elites, middles, and immigrants — and the community pops up, Brigadoon-style, at Cape Cod’s Craigville Conference Center. Just now a management consultant named John is parking his Jeep and puddle-hopping up to the Manor — his digs for the next five days, a sprawling house overlooking the beach. Inside he finds a bottle of Bordeaux, fruit and cheese, $29,050 in cash, his three co-elites, and a counselor in a tweed sport coat.
“Welcome to New Hope,” the counselor says. “You are the elites here. You have great responsibility. You control the court, the economy, the schools, the newspaper, everything.” He hands out a sheet of Do’s and Don’ts. “I’ve compiled some advice to help you accomplish what you came here to do.” He starts reading: “Don’t let yourself get comfortable. Don’t make friends. Do commit unnatural acts. Do talk to the devil.”
With that, he excuses himself and the four elites launch into a six-hour whiskey-lubricated discussion of the kind of society they wish to create at New Hope. Opinions Ping-Pong from philanthropic to fascist to the bootstrapping ethos of the American dream. Near midnight the group’s ideas roll to a steady state. Caitlin — the lone female, an environmental consultant with an amazing ability not to talk unless she has something useful to say — sums up: “It seems to me that a guiding principle of this group is that we all want to maintain our power. We want to be wearing our own underwear at the end of the week.”
On Sunday at about noon, the rain is still raging. The middles start to pull in. They are four, again three men and one woman, and upon their arrival at Groves — a modest two-story A-frame — people with hats marked “Staff” hand out “A Note Regarding Transition.”
“You are about to undergo the transition process,” the memo reads. “That is, to pass from the reality of your everyday life into a new reality that was designed for this program. As part of the transition process, you will be asked to give up a number of items that you have brought with you.”
A few minutes later staffers relieve the four middles of cell-phones, car keys, beepers, Discmans. Doug — a boyish, blond manager at a company in the information storage and retrieval business — looks visibly shaken. He and Katherine — 30ish and high-strung, a human resources manager at Microsoft — head upstairs, where they maniacally move all of the middles’ beds, bedding, and luggage into Groves’s two lockable rooms.
Around 3 PM the last New Hope campers, six immigrants, step into the Inn, a public building with a pay phone outside — although just now the phone is padlocked with a three-quarter inch chain. A sign declares it “out of bounds” to camp participants. Once again staffers hand out copies of “A Note Regarding Transition.” This time they also dispense brown grocery bags.
“It’ll be easier for me to tell you what you can bring into this society than what you need to leave behind,” a woman with a taut, marathon-runner’s body explains. “You can take a change of underwear, including socks, saline solution, and any prescription drugs. The brown bag is your new luggage. Wear any clothes you wish, appropriate to the weather.” She pauses, letting her message sink in. “I will collect your remaining belongings in approximately 10 minutes.”
There’s a moment of stillness, just nervous gasps and wide-eyed silence, and then final preparations begin. Lena — a 5′ 1″ featherweight StairMastering her way up the ladder — bulks up in a T-shirt, a long-sleeve thermal shirt, a sweater, a jacket, and two pairs of sweatpants, and then she brushes and flosses her teeth. Lou — a sales whiz turned applications engineer, driven in a way that belies his laid-back youth growing up in Hawaii — inhales three Marlboros and rings the office before handing over his cigarettes, beeper, keys, wallet, food stash, phone, and clothes. Stunned, he asks the marathoner, “Are we sleeping outside tonight?”
Welcome to the Power & Leadership Conference, aka Power Camp — a six-day, intensive training seminar that shines a Klieg light on organizational life and how you, in particular, deal with power, your own and others’. Don’t be fooled by the antics. Camp is not about eccentricity; it’s about every organization people work in.
The man behind the madness is Barry Oshry, founder of Power & Systems Inc. He’s a 60-ish Boston native who, with his white hair, beard, and ebullience, looks less corporate than academic, which is exactly what he is. In the early 1960s, he started running large-scale organizational simulations as part of an undergraduate business course he taught at Boston University. In 1969, he cooked up a two-tier, have and have-not society for The Race Institute in Baltimore. (He turned haves into have-nots by taking away their car keys, money, and belongings.)
The next year Oshry created the Power & Leadership Laboratory, now the Power & Leadership Conference, to take a stark look at personal behavior in the systems world we all inhabit. Ten days before the conference begins, participants complete the Self-In-System Sensitizer — a 30-page study of organizational strengths and shortcomings. At camp coaches approach participants daily, pushing them to recognize self-limiting behaviors, urging them to try on new roles. Meanwhile anthropologists — Power & Systems employees — note all New Hope dialogue verbatim. At the end of camp, they provide a detailed analysis, a virtual film of the week’s dynamics. There’s also a learning session every day: from 5 PM to 6:15 PM That’s when New Hope freezes for a TOOT, a Time Out Of Time — 75 minutes for Oshry’s disciples to conduct more formal seminars, and a chance for clients to compare their experiences to previous New Hope labs.
Act Two: Awakenings
“let me first apologize for the weather.” Caitlin is addressing the immigrants shortly after they enter the creepy, unheated, cement-floored tabernacle, home to New Hope’s court, newspaper, pub, and store.
The immigrants sit on benches in a triangle, facing inward, and the elites — all in suits, pressed shirts, and leather shoes — are standing behind them.
“My name is Ms. Gamble and I like it very much here. This is Mr. Oakley, Mr. Winslow, and Mr. Smith. You will all need to work for at least an hour before dinner to pay for your meal and then again for an hour after supper to rent a bed for the night. But we do understand that you have come to us with very spartan belongings, so we would like to extend to each of you this gift — a raincoat.”
None of this is lost on the immigrants: the raincoat is a plastic orange poncho, the elites insist on using formal names, the work is picking cobwebs off old church pews, the bed rental does not include linens or blankets, which must be rented at extra cost from the New Hope store. Within five minutes these things transform New Hope from a silly role play into a personal power drama where egos get bruised and wills compete.
At dinner — served by Hans, a portly immigrant with a skirted apron and a very important job back in the Netherlands — the castes eat at separate tables. The elites enjoy wine, linens, and a three-course meal, while the immigrants endure macaroni and cheese on paper plates. Afterward, middle Doug, the employment manager, scurries about attempting to secure labor for tomorrow’s bench scraping while a few immigrants, in an act of civil disobedience, sneak off to steal blankets from the Inn.
“I want to be your link to getting what you need out of New Hope,” Doug pleads to the immigrants, who have pledged secretly not to accept labor contracts until they’ve had a chance to meet. “I’m being pushed by the elite, and what the elite need is for New Hope to be a hopeful, productive place.”
It’s around 11:30 PM and the immigrants are sprawled out on the dingy shag rug of their living room, discussing their collective fate, when Doug returns — this time with his three co-middles in tow. “I’m sorry, Doug,” Lou scowls, “you said the reason you brought everybody was. . .?”
Soon talk turns to the gridlocked state of affairs at New Hope. The immigrants won’t work without their luggage. The middles, pressured to produce, won’t accept a strike. Nobody has any idea where the luggage is or how to get it. So the four middles plus Kaye, an immigrant, walk half a mile up the road in the drenching rain to bang on the elites’ door at 12:40 AM
Barry Oshry’s organizational theories are built around psychological spaces — topness, middleness, and bottomness. His goal is to help people see — and, perhaps, to avoid — typical reactions to predictable roles. “There’s nothing miraculous about it,” he says. “Certain consistent patterns happen at the top, at the bottom, and in the middle, independent of who the players are. When people experience personality conflicts they generally think, ‘It’s your character, my character, we’re not getting along.’ But a lot of the stuff that seems personal is actually systemic.”
Some Oshry definitions:
“The bottom space” is plagued by invisibility and vulnerability — bottoms aren’t seen by higher-ups, though higher-ups are constantly influencing bottoms’ lives in major and minor ways. On this tier, group-think develops: us forms to fight against them.
“The middle space” is a world of tearing — consistently conflicting needs, requests, priorities, demands. What tops and bottoms want from them, they don’t have. What they want, they go to tops and bottoms to get. Those in the middle tend to ignore each other: they have no time or interest in forming middle-middle bonds.
“The top space” is characterized by complexity — an endless series of ambiguous and unpredictable issues to deal with. To cope, tops streamline. They stake out personal terrain and become decreasingly involved in the system as a whole. The result: rigid boundaries, painful polarization, and turf wars.
Act Three: Personality Conflict
the next morning the elites are cranky — they’ve gotten little sleep and feel their privacy’s been violated. The middles are cold — after trekking back baggageless from the Manor, they gave all their blankets to the bottoms, unaware of the stolen bedding. And the immigrants stumble toward the dining hall huddled in an Ellis Island-esque mass.
Inside, immigrant Lou picks a minibox of Frosted Flakes off the bottoms’ table, pours in some milk, and continues last night’s strategy talk. “The more people work within the system, the stronger the system becomes,” he says.
“Well,” says Lena, “I totally disagree with just keeping the status quo.”
Hans adjusts his square glasses and puts down his spoon, showing his considerable discontent. “Let’s just say our power comes from our collective labor,” he says, stumbling over his English in a way that isn’t quite believable. “If the group fractures, we all lose.”
By meal’s end, it’s agreed that the only fracture allowed will be for immigrant Kaye to act as the group’s negotiator. So while the bottoms — including Lena — head off to scrape benches, Kaye walks into Boston Cottage, the elites’ office, accepts a cup of hot tea, and listens as Fred — Mr. Winslow to the immigrants — begins.
“This is our economic model,” he says, exposing a carefully prepared spreadsheet that reads: “Work: AM 2 hrs; PM 1.5 hrs. Meals: $6. Rent: $2.” “At $3 an hour, you immigrants each make $10.50 a day.” He subtracts the $8 for meals and rent, writes $2.50 on the newsprint, and circles it. “You’re being compensated more than adequately. In fact, you should be able to put away some.”
“But what about renting blankets? And sheets? And buying toothpaste from the store?” Kaye explodes. “At least we want you to include the basics — food, shelter, bedding — as an employment benefit in New Hope. And we want you to wash our clothes.”
“Where am I going to find a dishwasher?” Fred replies.
“You mean a washing machine!” Kaye says, disgusted. “You really are an elite.”
Later that day, the elites try to fragment the bottoms by leaving stray $10 bills around. The immigrants, savvy to their game, pool their new funds, and hang back during the evening learning session, salivating at the thought of buying extra bags of chips with their new money.
But by Monday evening, people’s true selves start emerging. Come dinner time, immigrant Lou, who, by his own admission, has come to Power Camp to learn how to play it cool, has accepted the positions of reporter, bartender, team manager, and store clerk — four out of New Hope’s five part-time jobs. After dinner, middle Katherine — who came to Power Camp to improve social and political skills — races into the pub, crying. She can’t find servers for the dining hall; the elites are breathing down her neck; she feels overwhelmed, just like always.
Up at the Manor, Caitlin and company are confronting the fact that their underwear theory — for them to retain power, everybody else had to lose it — is a bust. Little work is getting done at New Hope. Few people are happy. The elites commence a second society-building session. This time their goal is to frame their vision in a less personal, less graphic way.
By 12:30 AM, John is fed up. “This is too crazy,” he says. “I need a break.” He fires up his Jeep to go buy Cheerios, milk, juice, and cinnamon rolls at the local convenience mart for tomorrow’s breakfast. But a mile and a half from the Craigville Conference Center, a cop pulls him over. His lights aren’t on; his eyes are glazed. John almost gets arrested for DWI.
Over the years Oshry has not only created a model of organizational life, he has also deduced some natural laws governing organizational life. The Zeroeth Law of Organizational Life underlies all others: system craziness multiplies personal craziness. It goes like this: Tops feel responsible for everything, which causes them to suck problems up, which in turn makes them feel even more overloaded with responsibility than before. Bottoms feel disregarded, which in turn makes them blame the amorphous “them” for their situation. Middles feel crunched between the ends, which in turn causes them to slide in between and get torn up even more.
Another Law of Organizational Life is that the empowered system is one “in which people at all levels and in all positions are able to make happen what they want to have happen and what the system needs to have happen.” It’s a hippyish concept: empowerment through consciousness-raising.
“What takes us in this direction?” Oshry asks. “Seeing systems and managing them appropriately. If people say, ‘The system differentiates, that’s what’s happening,’ then we can recognize each other. If we get rid of righteousness and begin to value diversity, that can lead us to vibrancy and life.”
Act Four: Reorg
Tuesday is a tough day at new hope. among the immigrants, Lou wants to keep working as a team. Lena is dead set on rebellion. Kaye is as ripped as she’s been in a long time: elite John just handed her a diagram with a wheel labeled “Immigrant Labor” belted to a wheel labeled “Basic Needs,” a Sisyphusian-looking thing. And Hans is talking bluntly. “We established a community of our own, and now I feel that we are losing that power,” he says. He straightens his striped sweater. “I am very unhappy.”
At 11 AM, the elites summon everyone to the tabernacle for a community meeting. It’s cold again, the benches again in a triangle, but this time Caitlin’s tone is conciliatory. “Over the past couple of days we, the owners of the assets, the architects of society, have had discussions about how well the society has been working,” she begins. “Generally we feel that society is not working as well as it could. Too much energy is being wasted on confrontation and positional politics. So we’re inviting you to participate in the process of change.” She turns to her flip chart and pulls back the cover, revealing: “New Hope Vision for the Future: to create a powerful system for the beautification of New Hope society.”
From there the discussion winds through the inevitable paces. Kaye wants to run the meeting, Katherine asks for clarification of how beautiful is beautiful enough, Lou says he feels so insecure about his personal hygiene he needs to stand back in the corner of the room.
Later that night the bottoms again retire to their shag-carpeted living room to resolve internal differences. But Lena and two others quickly excuse themselves, bolt up to the Manor, and break in through a two-foot square window. They spend the next 20 minutes moving couches and propping up chairs — feverish efforts to block the elites’ entrance and create an air of terrorist subterfuge.
When John and Fred force open the Manor door, which they inevitably do, the two men are taken aback — not just by the new decor but by the new tenants: three immigrants, bound by a shared vow of silence, sit on the back stairs.
Rebellion is a vital element of the Power Camp experience. Oshry (or one of his proxies, Michael Sales) devotes an entire TOOT session to the art of shaking things up. The key concept is what they call “energizing” — thinking less about what makes sense for you personally and more about what the system needs.
Sales leads this evening’s session. “I have a great fascination with change agents,” he begins. “I love history makers. Who am I going to talk about today? Rosa Parks. Someone who created change so vast it’s still sweeping over us in wondrous and disturbing ways. Rosa showed mastery of what we call the system power move. It simultaneously changes your condition in the system and the whole system.”
Oshry admits that if you try a system power move and don’t turn out to be a visionary, you may go down in history as just a pain in the butt. Nonetheless, the system power move is an essential part of the Oshry framework. “One of the real paragons of system life is that sometimes what has to bring us to life is doing the difficult thing,” Oshry explains. “So what’s going to energize you? What’s going to cause you to grow, to break out of the status quo?”
Sales makes the risk seem inviting. “One of the greatest leaders in history was Moses, right? So he’s our model. Moses stuttered. He wasn’t exactly the ideal guy for the job. So what does Moses — Charlton Heston — say to the burning bush? ‘Why me, Lord?’ And what does the bush say? ‘Get your ass in gear and go be a force.'”
Act Five: Climax
Caitlin is at the pub when she hears news of the break-in. By the time she drives back up to the Manor, most of the New Hope community is there, one by one paying respects to the silent immigrants, bringing them whiskey or chocolate like some sort of Irish wake. Hans is near the end of his rope. He sits his teddy bear body very close to Lena, almost brushing her cheek with his face. “Will you let me in?” he asks. She just stares at him.
Out in the living room, the same old arguments are running. There are more fights over luggage, over dignity, over a living wage. Kaye starts up about career paths — in the old country, she says, she lived a much more developed life, and she’d feel a whole lot better if that degree of freedom were opened up. Doug interrupts. “I’m a middle and I have no career path and you don’t see me storming the Manor,” he says.
Caitlin glimpses New Hope slouching toward chaos and decides to grab control. “What I ask is that we start from where we are right now,” she says. “If this is point zero, day one, where do we feel we need to go?”
Kaye works with her. Katherine works with her. Doug and Hans do too. But it’s all for naught: just when Lou reenters the dialogue and Fred promises seed capital for entrepreneurial ventures, John quietly descends the back stairs, tells the Manor Three, “I can offer you a better bed and anything you want from the store,” and leads them out the service door.
The next morning New Hope is in a free fall, as if some societal linchpin has been yanked out. John and the Manor Three discuss tactical acts over pancakes at nearby Mr. Richard’s Kitchen. Kaye launches TheraPies — slices of cranberry-apple pie, $1, with a side of therapy on a sliding scale — only to have her baked good stolen. Fred says he’s been thinking things over, and he’s decided to found Brand New Hope. And Katherine demands an interview for Fred’s old job, causing major frustration at the top.
By three o’clock the entire community is exhausted. To blow off steam, Caitlin bombs to Macy’s in Hyannis, then drives back to the Manor and begins packing. “I could care less if I were a dogcatcher in society at this point,” she says. “We lost our underwear.” She descends the stairs, suitcase in hand, and disappears through the Manor door.
But as Caitlin walks down the road, the bell signaling TOOT time rings. In the Inn there’s a sign: “The Societal Experience Is Over.”
And just like that, New Hope ends.
The next 36 hours consist of analyzing the role play — first in pairs, then in small groups, then the whole group. The debriefing process is long and thoughtful. Faces show signs of recognition and relief. By design, Oshry stirs clients’ emotions. Over coffee they speak of the lab as “the World Series of training programs,” and “the most moving experience of my adult life.”
Post-camp divorce is not uncommon. Many graduates leave their jobs within one year. Come Friday morning, when people gather their belongings, there’s a palpable closeness, an intimacy built on survival.
“How am I going to explain this one to my wife?” Fred asks. Then people fold themselves into their rented cars and head home.
Elizabeth Weil (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes on business sociology and culture from Chicago.