Smart Power and Leadership

November 8, 2006
Liz Tempesta

Successful leaders know when and how to leverage “smart power” to achieve their goals. That was the message delivered Monday by Joseph Nye, university professor, during a brown bag seminar sponsored by The Program on Networked Governance. Nye argued that effective leadership rests on “the ability to understand context so that hard and soft power can be successfully combined into smart power and smart leadership.”
Nye’s lecture began with a historical look at leadership styles. Specifically, he looked at soft power—an inspirational style of leadership that relies on such skills as vision, communications and charisma—as well as hard power, a transactional style of leadership that relies on command, threats and intimidation.
Nye pointed out that given the rapidly changing information age, effective leadership styles are also changing.
“Globalization, the information revolution and democratization are all trends that are changing the macro context of political and organizational leadership,” Nye remarked. “We are moving from hierarchal to more networked organizations and what was once considered a feminine style of leadership, in terms of gender stereotypes, has become more effective for male and female leaders alike.”
Despite this trend, Nye emphasized that one leadership style may not be enough and effective leaders may need to combine hard and soft power skills. Quoting the research of Stanford psychologist, Roderick Kramer, Nye said, “In all our recent enchantment with social intelligence and soft power, we’ve overlooked the kinds of skills leaders need to bring about transformation in cases of tremendous resistance.”
Nye shares Kramer’s view that soft power alone is not sufficient. “The ability to combine hard and soft power fruitfully is ‘smart power,’” he said.
Smart power, according to Nye, is the ability to combine hard and soft power with contextual intelligence. Contextual IQ is a broad political skill which involves understanding the evolving culture and needs of potential followers, as well as capitalizing on trends and adjusting style to context.
“It is not that hard or soft power is better, or that an inspirational or transactional style [of leadership] is the answer, but that it is important to understand how to combine these power resources and leadership styles in different contexts,” Nye said. “Successful leadership may rest more upon soft power in the past, but the prize will go to those with contextual intelligence to manage the combination of hard and soft power into smart power.”

Photos: Doug Gavel

Joseph Nye image

Joseph Nye is professor of international relations and former dean of the Kennedy School.

Cambridge Colloquium image

Nye's lecture and subsequent discussion was part of the Cambridge Colloquium on Complexity and Social Networks seminar series.


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