Hard Power and Soft Power

When people talk about power, they invariable are referring to hard power.

Hard power is the power of authority and might.  Hard power is swift and decisive.  Hard power is the ability of the President of the United States to order assassinations, and have them carried out half a world away by drone strike.

In our focus on hard power, we often neglect soft power.

Soft power is the power of ideas and persuasion.  Soft power is slow and uncertain.  Soft power is the ability of a preacher’s daughter (Harriet Beecher Stowe) to pen a first novel (Uncle Tom’s cabin) that changed the course of America’s history.

In the short term, hard power seems more powerful.  Hard power is like using dynamite to blow a hole in the ground.  But in the long term, soft power prevails.  Soft power is like the ability of running water to carve out the Grand Canyon.

If you want to make change in the world, whether as an activist, a politician, or an entrepreneur, it is tempting to focus on hard power.  And if your time horizon is short, this focus makes sense.

But if you want to make lasting change, and you care more about making the change happen than about the opportunity to take credit for that change and bask in the adulation of the crowd, you should focus on soft power.

Hard power ends when you no longer have a gun to hold to someone’s head.  Soft power lets you plant an idea in someone’s head that no gun can remove, and that can be passed from mind to mind until that idea becomes the reality of the world.

It is altogether appropriate that we’ve marked the anniversaries of the Gettysburg Address and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Abraham Lincoln wielded hard power like no other president before him.  Yet he lives on in our memories as our greatest president because he used his soft power to speak to the ages.  John F. Kennedy’s life was ended by the exercise of hard power–an assassin’s bullet. But he will always be remembered for galvanizing the country to put a man on the Moon.

As a leader, you can choose what power you wield.  Choose wisely.

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