What I Learned About Power Last Weekend May 15 2012

This past weekend I traveled to Cambridge, Mass., for the 25th reunion of my graduating class at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  (Just writing that makes me feel old.)  I had the good fortune of graduating in a year that was the 350th anniversary of Harvard and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy School (and its predecessor, the School of Public Administration).  So, this year, as all of you mathletes have figured out, marks the 375th and 75th anniversaries respectively.

That meant that there was a lot of other stuff going on in Cambridge besides class reunion parties.  On Friday, for example, there was a Dean’s Conference with a lineup of really interesting speakers.  They were all good, but the one who really stood out for me was Joseph Nye, the long-time Harvard professor who also served as assistant secretary of Defense and other positions over the years.

Nye spoke on the topic of his latest book, “The Future of Power.”   While he was approaching the topic from the standpoint of international relations (lots on the dynamic between the U.S. and China), I think Nye’s views on the evolving nature of power have broader applications for leaders in different domains.

Here are three things I learned about power from Professor Nye last weekend and some thoughts about how you might apply them:

  • Soft power is as important as hard power. Twenty years ago, Nye came up with the term soft power.  As he said last weekend, it used to be that whoever had the biggest army won.  That’s hard power.  In the 21st century, whoever has the best story wins.  That’s soft power.  The effective use of hard and soft power is what Nye calls smart power.  If you step back and assess your own power, you’ll likely find that your hard power is limited by your circumstances.  Your soft power, however, is entirely dependent on how compelling your story is.  The way in which you share your story is something over which you have direct control.
  • Power is no longer a zero sum game. Nye reminded us that for much of history, power was a zero sum game.  One party won and the other lost.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Today, the game is not so much about power over others but developing power with others.  That can be a difficult mental shift for a country (or a person) that’s gotten used to being the biggest kid on the block.  In your own case, it might be productive to look for opportunities to combine your power with others.  Doing so can create a 1 + 1 = 3 scenario.
  • Whoever collaborates most wins. Professor Nye shared several stories of a recent speech he gave to 500 students at Beijing University.  It was fascinating to hear how candid he and the students were with each other.   When one student asked him what it would take for China to compete long term with the U.S., Nye told him that it couldn’t as long as the Great Firewall of Internet censorship is in place in the country.  His point was that sustainable long growth and innovation only occurs in an open and collaborative environment.   It used to be that information was power.  Today, sharing information is power.  What sort of opportunities do you and your organization have to gain from collaborative leadership?

What have you learned lately about growing and exercising power?

7 Responses to “What I Learned About Power Last Weekend”

  1. Scott
    Thank you for your post and three take-aways, expressed clearly and simply. Being a collaboration specialist and coach I especially appreciated #3.

    Collaboration is an art and a science, and with all the IT tools at our key strokes, we can make interacting possible much more easily and effectively. Since we do have the technology and ability to work, think, create, innovate, problem solve, and communicate together, it seems that the collaborative environment is a powerful place to be.


  2. Eddie Howden says:

    Indeed a huge move from the paradigm we have all grown up with. Exciting to boot!

  3. Marc says:

    Thought provoking — wish everyone would read this.

  4. JFF says:

    Key words such as "collaboration" and "power", "winning" and "losing", "production", and the grand daddy of all key words "POWER" are certainly thought provoking and as always this article is indeed articulate and insightful. Thanks Scott. __

  5. JFF says:

    Forgive me but the devil’s advocate in me is screaming and I must let it out. My T-Shirt says that “I only do what the voices in my head tell me to do” but that’s not always true. In my view (and in the eyes of many), "Winning" and "Losing" are a matter of perspective. You most certainly can “win” the battle but “lose” the war. The collaborative efforts of the many may indeed get 1+1 to look like it equals 3 but I’d contend that this only diminishes the overall efforts made by each party in the collaboration and the equation should actually be 1+1 + (a whole bunch of little parts) = 3? __My point is that the solution (total) to any problem will never equal more than the effort (sum of the parts) made to find that solution. What you put into a project is always going to equal what you will get out. So my disappointment seems to be rooted in the good Professor’s contention that developing solutions with others is the most viable solution to growth and prosperity. I’d contend that it is not always the best solution but one of many possible tools to use. (2 of 3)

  6. JFF says:

    I am by nature self reliant and believe that "need" is what drives innovation and in many cases creativity. I suppose I’m one of the many who have difficulty (mental shift) believing that only the best solutions come from the “room full of experts”. While NASA is no doubt a tremendous example of how successful this approach to management and success can be(everyone remembers Tom Hanks and Apollo 13), that red flag keeps jumping up in the back of my mind reminding me about the Challenger disaster and what role “group speak” played in the ultimate decision to launch that cold morning. They collaborated also didn’t they?__What opportunities do “I” have to gain? Well Scott, I suppose that depends on how quickly you can point me to that room full of experts so I can listen to what they have to suggest? I have no problems with exercising the power of leadership when presented with value based solutions to any one given problem. I'm also not affraid of making a mistake because in the end, if whatever you decide is wrong you can fix it most every time by making another decision. (3 of 3)

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