Here’s to “Firm” Power

August 10, 2011

Here’s to “Firm” Power

As a believer in “soft power,” I think that I have to make an exception when it comes to presidential leadership and politics. President Obama may be in need of  using a slightly hybrid type of power on the hard-soft continuum. Soft power is a term that has gained prominence in how leaders communicate whether they be presidents, prime ministers or CEOs. Soft power became part of the business lexicon when it was defined by Joseph Nye at Harvard’s Kennedy School several years ago — “Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.”  It is different from “hard power” which uses sticks, carrots and sometimes coercion to get things done.  Most CEOs today, like Obama,  use soft power to influence outcomes, get employees to follow their strategy and treat customers well.  We see CEOs walking the halls, holding town meetings, sending out congratulatory notes, caring about the community and so forth.   The command-and-control hard power employed by CEOs  of years past does not work as well in the Information Age.  
Obama’s bi-partisianship and consensus-driven “soft power” approach  may be in need of a serious shift. Instead of leaning closer to the soft end of the power spectrum, President Obama needs to lean forward using more “firm power.”  There has got to be an in-between where President Obama can lead the country and the U.S. can lead the world with immedicacy, steadfastness and hard action.  As Nye has said, “Reputation has always mattered in political leadership, but the role of credibility becomes an even more important power resource because of the paradox of plenty.”  Obama’s reputation for credibilty is bruised. Coalition-building takes too long and is too hard to measure when pennies, jobs and confidence count.  His activities and communications are too diffuse at this time of global economic crisis. Firm power might just be the answer for these unusual times.

[Whether firm power applies to CEOs, I do not think so. I still that that soft power gets better results and attracts the best talent when employed by business leaders. And ultimately….CEOs do not have to build coalitions in the way that politicians do. CEOs can fire the nay-sayers more easily.  Presidents do not have that option. ]

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross
lesliegainesross@gmail.com

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of reputations.

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