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July 16, 2020
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Leading With Soft Power

Soft power

To effectively lead a diverse team, you need to continually grow your skill set. With each promotion and new title comes more responsibility and more power. As you move up the ranks from leading a team to leading a region, a market group to an entire sales force, your effectiveness and success will be a function of the ways and how well you connect with your team. 

Leaders can get their people to accomplish tasks and manifest their visions using any number of methods. Those methods fall into two broad categories: Hard Power and Soft Power. This terminology was most notably adopted in the early 1990’s after Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye’s analysis of American power abroad. He opined that countries have the power to coerce or induce (hard power) other countries via military and economic activity. Alternatively, countries can persuade or co-opt the wills (soft power) of other countries through cultural exchanges, positive messaging, and leading by example. The same holds true for you as a leader. 

With each promotion, your new title gives you more hard power with which to impose your will and vision on your direct and indirect reports. You can exercise hard power through terminations, demotions and transfers of those whose actions and opinions aren’t in line with your own. Your hard power also includes promotions, increased compensation and preferred assignments for those who are willing to advance your agenda.  

As we have seen in examples like Enron and Wells Fargo, this type of hard power environment can lead to catastrophic unintended consequences. An employee who has been effectively coerced to perform in ways that will please you as a leader will not give her very best, especially when your goals are not in alignment with hers. 

Soft Power IS Powerful  

Your other option is to use soft power to align your team’s will to your vision and goals. Your actions toward the least of your reports, your behavior towards those who disagree with you and your ability to communicate your vision (both short- and long-term) all demonstrate your soft power. As you can imagine, a soft power led environment is one marked by “buy-in” and creative responses that are in alignment with your goals and vision. 

As the saying goes, “People do business with people they know, like and trust.” This is the essence of soft power. When your people know what you stand for, where you are going, and they know their voices and opinions will be heard and valued they are more willing to follow. 

How well you communicate presents the first challenge to effectively using your soft power.  Communication can use any combination of words, pictures, numbers, graphs, literary references, or anecdotal stories to convey the concepts.  The challenge is that bullet points, numbers and graphs are inherently boring.  You need to do more than just communicate your goals… You need to share your Vision. 

Soft power

Sharing your vision is moving beyond explaining the “what” of the goal and getting your people to embrace the “why” of your mission. Vision is the key that unlocks the inspiration that will get your people to choose to follow you. Using those same words, numbers and graphs to describe a future that will inspire your people to act is critical to that attraction.  The more desirable the vision, the greater the engagement of your team members and their actions. The more alignment you have with this vision the greater your soft power. 

Steps to Improve Soft Power 

Hard power is easy to understand, but the concept of soft power, what it is, how to develop and use it can be challenging. Soft power involves active engagement on the part of the leader. In short, hard power is something done to your people (e.g.: give a raise, assign a project), soft power is done with your people (e.g.: communicate, trust, share). 

While hard power grows with each promotion, your soft power can grow regardless of your title. Because your soft power is a function of your interaction with people, you control how much you have and how powerful it is. There are several actions you can take to grow your soft power:

Develop your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – Continuing with Harvard University theorists, Howard Gardner explains that Emotional Intelligence is your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them. The stronger your EQ, the better your connections with your team. Those connections are the foundation of your soft power. 

Soft power

Embrace the Servant Leadership Model – In what seems to be a counter-intuitive concept, leadership is focused on serving. When the leader serves the needs of the team members, trust and growth follow. Each time you flatten hierarchies or delegate responsibilities, mentor young and underrepresented talent, or roll up your sleeves and do work that is “below” your rank you are modelling servant leadership and extending the reach of your soft power 

Speak Truth from Power – A better way to explain this is for you to show vulnerability. Your team doesn’t expect you to have all the answers to all the problems. In difficult times they expect regular and candid information and honest, encouraging words when times are good. The COVID-19 shutdowns offered a great opportunity for leaders to acknowledge the teams’ collective anxiety, the lack of a roadmap for navigating a shutdown/reopening during a global pandemic and to lead with open compassion. 

Connect Team Goals to Individual Goals – This step is only possible when there is a strong connection with your team members, and they feel comfortable sharing their goals. By sublimating your goals into those of your team members’, you effectively co-opt their desires and efforts. Consider these examples: Your quarterly revenue goal is a wonderful byproduct of your sales rep earning the money to replace his unreliable car. Delegating the regional production report is just the exposure your protégé needs to be considered for the promotion she wants. 

Conclusion 

Leaders of diverse teams need to use all the leadership tools available. The old “carrot and stick” are no longer up to the task of motivating teams comprised of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials. Add age, race, and orientation components and it is easy to see that one-size-fits-all is not the future of leadership. 

In his book “The Prince”, Machiavelli addressed the need for a dynamic approach when using different types of power. Machiavelli encouraged the Prince (ostensively Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbinoto) to first understand his environment and then apply the tools of power ranging from diplomacy to deadly force as the situation demanded. For centuries, the deft use of the two broad powers is a hallmark of successful leaders. 

Hard power comes with your position. The higher the position, the greater the power. To be truly effective, to rise to the highest ranks and to get the very best out of your team – large or small – you must develop and add soft power to your repertoire.  

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