I have always been interested in soft power, the nuanced deployment of influence and persuasion, without the muscularity or leverage of direct control.
Leadership requires an understanding of the limitations of hard power and the possibilities of its gentler iteration. Currently our political masters seem to have lost the art of persuasion, but in the absence of the power afforded by a comfortable majority we are witnessing an impotent deadlock on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the corporate and institutional sectors, we have long understood that hard power is not enough to succeed. As employers we can demand that our workforce turn up, but to get the most out of them, they need to be inspired and motivated by more than a pay check and some benefits.
Modern leadership has to earn its power, and once acquired there has never been more scrutiny or jeopardy in its abuse. People need to believe in a leader’s values, not just espoused but lived and evidenced with a daunting consistency.
Should a journey that begins with a private jet end in accusations of hypocrisy if the environment is on the agenda? Should the message be ignored if the messenger has some contradictory human failings? Should a company’s earnest efforts to improve be discounted or dismissed because of their past failings or slow progress at reinvention?
Machiavelli said: “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”
600 years after those words were written, the entrenched resistance to positive change and the sneering cynicism afforded to the motives of its proponents act as a powerful disincentive to utilise what power we do have to improve our world. Leadership has never been easy or half as much fun as we might have imagined when it was a distant goal; but I would urge you to remember what Stan Lee (and to be fair, Voltaire) said about great power demanding great responsibility. In the absence of superpowers, our leaders must learn how soft power can change the world and lead with dialogue, not discourse, vulnerability not strength, and vision unblurred by personal gain.
At freuds we call it enlightened self-interest. You may be pleasantly surprised how doing right can do you good.
My great grandfather said “love and work, work and love…. that’s all there is”. Leadership in my view requires a keen understanding of the power of both, in balance.
Love & Work