How best to get what you want: Hard or Soft power?

If you have to choose between having hard or soft power, which should you go for?

In 1919 the British Empire was at its largest.  It covered a quarter of the land mass of the world, and ruled over a fifth of the population.  This was hard power, command and control, and it has mostly and thankfully been dismantled. 

They used to say that the sun never set on the empire.  To quote Shane McGowan “It is now deep in darkness”.  But there is an aspect of Britishness which still is pre-eminent around the world.  In terms of soft power, UK is still one of the top nations in the world.  In fact, in 2023 the United Kingdom was second only to the USA in the Brand Finance soft power index.

So, what constitutes soft power?  It is the ability to persuade rather than coerce.  It involves bringing people over to your camp through appeal and attraction, and shared experiences and values. 

Hard power is a military invasion. Economic sanctions are hard power. In contrast, soft power is persuasion, without recourse to force.

The UK’s continued appearance at the top of the rankings must these days has less to do with politics and more to do with traditions like a good cup of tea, and culture, music, movies, tv and sport.  These days the sun never sets on a Manchester football team fan, an Ed Sheeran fan or a “Whovian.”   Hard power gave us Land of Hope and Glory, soft power is a host of global hits from Stairway to Heaven to Harry Styles ‘ As it was” with influential British artists like Oasis, The Beatles, Adele, Elton John and The Rolling Stones.

Diane Coutu, director of client communications at Banyan Family Business Advisors, explains in HBR: “In essence, power is nothing more than the ability to affect others to get what you want, and that requires a set of tools. Some of these are tools of coercion or payment, or hard power, and some are tools of attraction, or soft power. For individuals, charisma (emotional appeal), vision, and communication are key soft-power skills; for nations, soft power is embodied in their culture, values, and legitimate policies.”

You’ve got the choice of chasing soft or hard power in your career.  Clearly the best leaders combine both, using soft skills to win people around them over to hard, sometimes tough, decisions.

Unless you chase hard power it can mean that you are overlooked for promotion.  If you don’t prioritise climbing the career ladder, if you focus on the work, or the happiness of your team mates then other people might be pushing for that next step to the top and you may get overlooked.

Alternatively, if you are all about climbing the career ladder you could be shocked at how little power you actually have when you do get promoted.  There can be a pit of despond that recently promoted directors fall into when they discover that a much longed for career boost means more responsibility and little actual gain in status. It can take time to process the real meaning of leadership status.  And wow betide those that forget the mantra to be nice to those when you are on the way up, as you might someday meet them on the way down.

Hard power gives status, people to command, divisions to restructure, expenses to sign off and assistants perhaps to get your dry cleaning.  Soft power will win more people over to your point of view. It depends what you want most of course but going by the British Empire it’s soft power that has more longevity and better tunes.

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