Elections have dominated the public discourse lately, and it brings into focus a question of power in general.

I came across a fascinating discussion about soft power when exploring how graduate students are taught innovation at MIT (“Reflections on Leadership and Innovation” by Irving Wladawsky-Berger).

On a very basic level, soft power is about getting others to want the outcomes you want without threats or payments – through co-option rather than force. It is based on the ability to shape the preference of others.

Soft power is very different from the Industrial Age power of stick and carrot. Let me explain…

Harvard University professor Joseph Nye first introduced the term to describe the ability of a political body, such as a state, to indirectly influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies through cultural or ideological means.

Soft power is more of a tool for the globalized, fast-changing world of today. In the framework of traditional hard power, you decide what you want people to do and simply tell them, pay them, or coerce them to do it. The same approach does not work very well when dealing, say, with channel partners rather than employees, or affiliated entities, which are spread across different continents, or strategic partners that have agendas different from yours.

Businesses recognized long ago the importance of soft skills, as evidenced by the corporate terminology of the 21st century: emotional intelligence and transformational leadership are de rigueur practices for managers of globally integrated enterprises today.

Nations and corporations alike seek leaders who are comfortable and effective with the practice of soft power, the subtle fuel for our collective ability to meet the complex challenges of the 21st Century.

Looks like it’s time to drop that carrot and that stick.

Veronika Litinski

Veronika Litinski provides advisory services to entrepreneurs and high growth companies, with a special focus on life sciences markets, specializing in corporate finance and business development. See more…