When Hard Power Leadership Fails; Soft Power Prevails

leadership Mar 09, 2020
hard or soft

The only thing certain today is uncertainty.

     The global pandemic upended the things we knew as certain: opening business each day, getting on a plane, hugging your parents or best friends, or walking through a grocery store.

     Nothing is certain today. Not the effects of re-opening the US economy. Not the timeline for children to safely return to school. Not which data, information, or source is credible or accurate.

     The uncertainty that we experience is, in my opinion, the outcome of hard power leadership.

Hard Power Leadership

What is hard power leadership?

     I see hard power leadership as coercive, divisive, authoritarian, self-serving, narrowly focused, and opportunistic. This leadership form increases distrust, disbelief, discord, and uncertainty among followers.

     My leadership foundation comes from my training as a U.S. Marine. My company works with leaders all over the world. Crisis reveals a person’s true leadership style. I have witnessed leaders use soft power and hard power. Both styles impact how people experience and recover from crises.  

Soft Power Leadership                                                           

What is soft power leadership?

     I believe soft power leadership is reassuring, authentic, empathetic, community-focused, steady, accountable, and decisive. Soft power leadership tends to listen to diverse voices and provide consistency.

     This form of leadership unites, communicates a common mission/goal, and rallies people to do difficult things. Soft power leadership enrolls people into a greater vision. A belief in a hopeful future. Soft power leaders are not weak or ineffective. They engage and collaborate in ways that are compassionate.

Hard Power Fails

     Over the past few months, we have witnessed the results of soft power and hard power leaders. What I have seen in this catastrophic pandemic is that soft power prevails and hard power fails.

It’s in the numbers.

     There are hard power leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro who minimized the coronavirus. From his public criticism of Governors’ lockdown policies, firing officials who advocate tougher protections, to attending public events mask-less, Bolsonaro exercises hard power leadership. Today, Bolsonaro leads a country with the most citizens infected and dying in Latin America. Bolsonaro’s use of hard power leaves his citizens at severe risk, as well as, adjacent countries.

     Similarly, the US President, Donald Trump has denied the severity of COVID-19, minimized its severity, shirked responsibility to help. This has left more U.S. citizens infected and deaths than any other country (developed or developing) in the world.

     Both leaders have fired, silenced, and denied voices that sounded the alarm. Citizens in both countries suffer from anxiety, confusion, frustration, apathy—while others have resorted to violence.

Hard power leadership has direct and devastating consequences.

Soft Power Prevails

     Contrast these countries’ leaders with Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jin (an epidemiologist).  He took direct, decisive action to protect Taiwan’s citizens. His personality is described as one that ‘pulls people together and exudes a sense of reliability and trustworthiness. Taiwan has under 500 COVID cases and only 6 deaths.

     Another world leader, who uses soft power leadership in her countries’ COVID-19 response, is New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Prime Minister Ardern took decisive action imposing a strict national lockdown.

     Her soft power leadership is evident in her neighbor-next-door style of communication via Facebook Live chats. She explained why she took action, why it was important, where it would take the country, and how even she was impacted. She conveyed a sense that everyone is in it together.

     Ardern consistently spoke to the fears people had brought a sense of trust, calm, and confidence. Her soft power leadership has tangible results. New Zealand has had less than 1,500 COVID-19 cases and just 20 deaths. Recently, New Zealand reported eliminating COVID-19. No new infections are reported.

Leadership Expectations

     My leadership observations are not to focus on politics or political affiliations. There will always be a political figure or party that someone does not like or believe in. My training as a U.S. Marine reminds me that leaders “lead by example”. Our political leaders are the most visible leaders with the most wide-ranging influence. The pandemic crystalizes the point: leadership really matters.

We are counting the numerical results of hard and soft power leadership.

     My interest is squarely on raising awareness and discussion about leadership. Leadership matters—absolutely. Leadership can give life or facilitate death; physical death or death of opportunity. The coronavirus has made that statement sharply evident.

     I believe it is time to reflect deeply on what we need and expect from leadership.

     There seems to be little time analyzing a leader’s character and style. Too much time is spent explaining away a leader’s character flaws or drowning out anyone who dares to question the impact of those flaws.

     We must ask new questions. What is the person’s character? Does the person unite everyone or create divides? Is the leader self-absorbed or globally-minded? Does everyone feel included in the vision of the future? Does the leader’s communication bring calm, consistency, and confidence?

Courageous Followers  

     Leadership matters—absolutely. Absolute use of hard power fails absolutely. In the face of a catastrophic pandemic, true leadership is revealed in the results that citizens experience.

     We must become courageous followers. Courageous followers demand leaders be responsible for the duties of their office or role. The vitality of our world demands that we cast a new vision for leaders and their leadership—elected, appointed, or hired.

Our lives depend on it.

Jenny DuFresne is the CEO, Leaders Transform. Our mission is to develop leaders who grow, inspire, and evolve people, culture, and impact. Our team supports executive and mid-level leaders with executive coaching, leader, team, and culture development in mid-market companies. Learn more at www.LeadersTransform.com

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