The Rules of Soft Power

Shower Water Snake feeding :)“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” Lao Tzu

Soft Power is part of Leadership

  • Soft Power is necessary to get things done
  • Leaders have soft power
  • People with soft power skills become leaders
  • Soft Power decides how disagreements about what to do and how to do it get resolved

Soft Power is given based on other’s perception of us

If you look like a leader, if you act like a leader: people will treat you like a leader.  If you look like a follower, if you act like a victim, if you are perceived as weak: people will ignore your input.

Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard who coined the term “soft power”, speaks about the shift in the source of power over the last 100 years.  In the industrial age power was defined by “who’s army wins”.  In the information age power  is defined by “who’s story wins”.

  • Hard power: Get others to do what they otherwise wouldn’t want to do (“My army is bigger than yours”, “I am the boss”)
  • Soft power: Get others to want what I want (“Here is a future I can help you create”)

8 Behaviors of Powerful People

What are the behaviors of people who wield soft power?  What can you do to model leading with soft power?  Jeffrey Pfeffer offers this list of 8 behaviors in his book “Power”:

  1. Make eye contact
    1. Looking down or away conveys evasiveness
    2. Not making eye contact is perceived as untrustworthy
  2. Take up space and adopt an expansive posture
    1. If you adopt a “power” pose, you will not only feel more powerful, your actual blood chemistry (cortisol, a stress hormone, and testosterone) will change
    2. Don’t hunch, fold your arms in front of your chest, or do other things that signal defensiveness
  3. Use forceful gestures—avoid waving your arms; use compact gestures such as pointing or moving your hands in a powerful fashion
  4. Use your voice and its tone to convey power
    1. Speak loudly (within reason)
    2. Don’t raise your inflection at the end of a sentence, making statements seem like questions
    3. Don’t umm and ehh, speak without filler words
  5. Manage the setting to the extent possible
    1. Use symbols of power—dress, uniforms
    2. Control seating, ask people to move if it would be better to ensure eye contact
    3. If the room is cold, ask somebody to put the heat on
  6. Don’t use notes
    1. Notes convey that you are “mouthing” someone else’s message
    2. Notes imply you are not in command and are uncertain
    3. Notes require you to look down, breaking eye contact
  7. Have meetings on your territory, if possible
  8. Display Anger rather than Sadness or Remorse
    1. Those with power have permission to be angry, so the expression of anger has become associated with power
    2. Research shows that others convey more status to someone who expresses anger rather than sadness or guilt
    3. In many instances, situations are ambiguous—if you are ashamed and embarrassed by your behavior, others will follow your lead

Acting Powerfully is a learnable skill

You can learn the practice of soft power.  Studies of “genius”—outstanding performance in fields ranging from athletics, to art, to math and science—consistently find that raw, innate talent is overrated. What matters is Deliberate Practice and coaching.  Malcolm Gladwell tells us that it takes 10,000 hours to become world class.

8 Behaviors of Speaking with Power

“Communication persuades others largely through how we look and present ourselves; second, by how we sound, and of least importance, by the content of what we say. Therefore, how we “show up” is important in our ability to attract support for efforts to lead change.” Jeffrey Pfeffer

  1. Use clear, simple, declarative sentences
  2. Use lists of 3 or more items
  3. Use contrasts, framed to make your position seem reasonable by comparison
    1. “Do you want to retreat or persevere to achieve victory”
  4. Show similarity to audience. Because we tend to support those to whom we are similar, use “us” versus “them” references to develop an association with your audience and seem like one of them
  5. Pause for emphasis (5 aspects of a Powerful Voice)
  6. Avoid notes
  7. Interruption
    1. Powerful people interrupt
    2. Those with less power get interrupted
  8. Use humor— No one ever left a speech saying “I hated the way she made me laugh out loud”.  Laughter unites a group.  It is a shared experience. Powerful leaders create shared experiences that bring people together.

Grow your army or tell better stories

 Are you spending your time and effort developing a better, stronger army or are you developing the ability to attract people towards your vision through looking like a leader and sharing your stories in ways that those stories become the reality for others?  A coup can take the army away from you.  No coup can destroy the stories.
If you want to be a better leader, start by acting like the best leaders.  What is soft is strong.

2 responses to “The Rules of Soft Power”

  1. As Tom Peters says: “find allies rather than fighting against enemies”. Great post, Conor

    1. 😉 Smart man, Tom!

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