I have been thinking a lot about the style of business leadership that is most appropriate in our increasingly flat, globally integrated world, a world in which we are now able to tackle problems of an incredible complexity, in markets that are fiercely competitive and constantly changing, with organizations that reflect the complexity of the systems and markets with which we are dealing. It is pretty clear that the classic hierarchical style of management that served us well in the Industrial Age is not up to the task.
Similar discussions about leadership styles are taking place in political circles, most prominently around the concept of soft power. Soft power was first coined by Joseph Nye, professor of international relations at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. According to Professor Nye, if power at its most general level is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants, there are several ways to accomplish that. You can coerce them with threats; you can induce them with payments; or you can attract or co-opt them.
Soft power is all about getting others to want the outcomes you want without threats or payments - through co-option rather than coercion. At its essence, "soft power rests on the ability to shape the preference of others.”
“In the business world, smart executives know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, but also involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want. Similarly, contemporary practices of community-based policing rely on making the police sufficiently friendly and attractive that a community wants to help them achieve shared objectives." In international relations, "a country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries admire its values, emulate its example, aspire to its level of prosperity and openness."
Soft power is particularly critical in our times, due to the nature of the conflicts in which we increasingly find ourselves, in particular the War on Terror or The Long War. The Long War is a truly global conflict with a variety of enemies spread around the world. They are organized into small groups, distributed and very local - that is, living among civilian populations - but they coordinate, recruit and fund their actions around the world in a whole new set of ways. We are fighting an amorphous enemy whose main objective seems to be to destroy our very way of life and impose their own. These conflicts have much more of the feel of a battle of civilizations or cultures.
How do you prepare for and fight such a global, fast-changing, amorphous and unpredictable conflict? We will always need a strong military that serves mostly as a deterrent, but that can quickly be deployed and win whatever hot wars and skirmishes arise around the world. But while this is absolutely necessary, it is now far from sufficient.
The Long War is perhaps as much about winning the hearts and minds of people and nations as it is about defeating, or at least containing, an enemy that is often hard to find. We thus must focus on the soft aspects of the conflict, because these are the ones that over time could undermine the democratic principles, free markets and standard of living that we cherish. This is why the effective practice of soft power is so critical.
In recent months, I have become quite intrigued with the Long War, both because it is a subject so critical to our times, and because many of the issues and leadership challenges seem closely related to those surrounding globally integrated enterprises.
Last week, while in Washington, I visited CSIS, the Center for Strategic & International Studies. CSIS’ main objective is "providing strategic insights and practical policy solutions to decision makers in government by conducting research and analysis and developing policy initiatives that look into the future and anticipate change."
CSIS has convened a high-level, bipartisan Commission on Smart Power, chaired by Joseph Nye and by Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005. The Commission includes national leaders in government, elective office, the military, NGOs, media, academia and the private sector. Its aim is "to develop a blueprint for revitalizing America's inspirational leadership" and "to make recommendations for developing an integrated policy to strengthen U.S. influence, image and effectiveness in the world.
The Commission's final report will be issued in fall 2007, and will aim to help shape the political debate during the 2008 presidential campaign." A Smart Power blog has been developed to "enable policy makers and citizens alike to engage in a non-partisan and forward-looking dialogue on the nature of American leadership."
That leadership is viewed by many as being in serious trouble. In an article titled “The Decline of America's Soft Power” in Foreign Affairs, Professor Nye puts it succinctly: "Success in the war on terrorism depends on Washington's capacity to persuade others without force, and that capacity is in dangerous decline."
On its web site, the CSIS Smart Power Commission writes that "America must revitalize its ability to inspire and persuade, rather than merely rely upon its military might. Despite the predominance of U.S. hard power, there are limits to its effectiveness in addressing the main foreign policy challenges facing America today. America's standing in the world is diminished, and although there have been discrete "soft power" successes – most notably the progress against HIV/AIDS and malaria, and the creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation -- many of the traditional instruments of soft power, such as public engagement and diplomacy, have been neglected and fallen into disrepair.”
“In addition, there remains a lack of strategic vision for how to integrate soft and hard power into ‘smart power’ to address current and future challenges. The next year offers a unique opportunity for the United States to engage in a national dialogue on the best way to draw to its side the support of friends and allies in the pursuit of its national security interests."
The reality is that, whether in a company or government, soft power is much harder to wield than classic hard power, where you decide what you want people to do and simply tell them, pay them, or coerce them to do it. However, when those people do not work for you, are spread all over the globe, or have agendas different from yours, thinking that you can tell them what to do and control their actions feels more like delusional than hard power.
We need to get as many people and countries around the world to be part of and benefit from our increasingly interconnected economies. We need to help them see a potentially promising future for them and their families, and give them hope that their children can have a higher standard of living by getting a good education and a good job. And we badly need very smart leaders in businesses and nations around the world, who are very comfortable and effective with the practice of soft power, to help us build the kind of globally collaborative society that we so urgently need in the 21st Century.