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What I Learned About Power Last Weekend


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?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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