The Rise of Soft Power

I have a strange routine on my daily commute to work. It’s a proper yin and yang – listening to The Today Programme @BBCr4today in the morning, and choosing from my pretty big collection of pop music CDs for the winding and country drive home in the evening (yes, I still listen to CDs. It’s not because I’m low-tech. They sound better than MP3s!)

So I spend some time singing pop songs at the top of my voice, and then the rest reflecting on really powerful journalism and thoughtful business stories. And something on Radio 4 made me think, and then apply the principles to my day job.  It’s about the rise of “soft power”.

Joseph S. Nye (diplomat, political scientist and Professor at Harvard) coined the phrase ‘soft power’ in 1990. Broadly it means promoting positive perceptions of a country’s interests and identity overseas. It’s used to describe the way a country like China is changing the way it influences the world in general. For example, helping the world see a nation’s point of view makes the media king. China is allowing more radio and TV channels (e.g. China Radio International and including those transmitting in foreign-languages) to broadcast regionally and nationally.

If some of the most dominant nations in the world are seeing that a different approach is needed, then we all need to take note. This is about a recognition that:

  • the past allowed CONTROL over people and companies, but
  • the future requires the INFLUENCE of society and business.

And that takes me nicely to the point about leadership and leaders. The #value of a leader used to be derived from their ability to control. In today’s much more complex world, leaders can’t even hope to control everything. So the future #value of a leader will come from something very different – their ability to influence the behaviour of others.

If anyone else is feeling a bit skeptical, thinking that this kind of influence is just an “iron fist in a velvet glove” (meaning it is still control, but disguised as influence) then you’d have a point. But I do think it’s more subtle than that. I’m not going to do justice, in one blog, to the theme of influencing others. But what I do know is that influence requires conscious or unconscious understanding of neuroscience, communication, gravitas, empathy, engagement, coaching and change – and the list goes on.

So if you want to be that #standout leader, take any opportunity you can to practice and perfect your skills in this area. Or just make everything you do become focused on influencing the behaviours of others. The rise of soft power is inevitable, and you’d better start developing yours 🙂



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