Soft power crucial for leadership success

Image shows three women and three men in a boardroom to represent soft power

As female influence rises in the business world, is it time to embrace soft power where persuasion, team-building and staying cool in a crisis are highly valued

The business world is awash with talk of soft power. It is, say gurus and thinkers, the key to durable success and it’s largely thanks to women that the trend has risen to prominence. But what is it? Well, simply put, soft power is the application of emotional intelligence.

When Joseph Nye coined the term soft power in 1990, it was used to describe foreign policy. The phrase referred to winning people over to your point of view through diplomacy and collaboration, as opposed to using outright force – the ability to co-opt rather than coerce.

In business, soft power means the ability to influence and engage others through communication, persuasion and charm. And these skills are highly valued in the workplace. In a 2009 Google review of managers aimed at making them better bosses, the search engine giant found that skills such as being a good coach, empowering your team and expressing an interest in employees’ success and wellbeing came out on top.

And, to a large extent, we have women to thank for this. Women have started to dominate key professions such as banking and accounting. Carol Bagnald, HSBC’s commercial director for London, is an example of this shift. She says: “Women are starting more businesses than ever before, so female influence is increasing. The rising financial power of women is huge and businesses need to understand this growing customer market – and capitalise on it. Interestingly, I see far greater numbers of senior females controlling the financial direction of companies, too.”

In the global economy women are more successful than men and this is affecting our culture – and the way we do business. Research shows that women are excellent mediators, great networkers and they prioritise the building of relationships more than men.

Key skills include the ability to work in a group, to evaluate a situation from more than one perspective, and to communicate effectively. Vital attributes are vision, rhetoric, non-verbal communication and personal attraction. But why are these skills such a big winner in business?

Being collaborative has always been a positive, but it’s the changing demands of work that hold the key. Glenis Wade, a business consultant who coaches management teams, says: “The business world is information- and knowledge-dependent and it’s essential that you have people who can communicate and share knowledge effectively and get the best out of people.

Poor communication and leadership can lead to a reduction in employee engagement and retention, and a loss of company knowledge and continuity, which affects the quality of products and services and a company’s ability to grow – not forgetting the costs involved in constant recruitment to fill those gaps.

While some business leaders may prefer to keep emotions tightly buttoned up, a total aversion to soft power can cause huge problems. Many business analysts now point to the lack of the necessary skills that led us into economic crisis in the first place, and European economists blame too much testosterone for the risky behaviour that started it all off.

Fortunately in the UK we have proven to be good at soft power. According to Monocle magazine’s Soft Power Survey, Britain is number one in the world in terms of global cultural influence, with the 2012 Olympics playing a big role in this. Business leaders are waking up to the importance of soft power in the business environment, with the likes of Jeff Weiner, chief executive at LinkedIn, and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, embracing its nurturing, collaborative tactics.

Another is Kevin Roberts, chief executive worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi. He champions the ‘warriors’ in life who aren’t afraid to use emotional intelligence: “It is warriors winning in a world of soft power that counts, not hard power. [Sir Richard] Branson’s a soft-power warrior through influence, through franchising, through branding. More and more we are a female society and the values of female are driving us – we’re about 65 per cent female at Saatchi. And they’re not warriors like men with balls, they’re soft-power warriors, influencers, like Michelle Obama.”

On average, FTSE-100 companies have only 16.7 per cent female representation on their boards. But many business chiefs are recognising the benefits of having women in senior positions. For example, the 30 Percent Club, a group of corporate leaders voluntarily committed to bringing more women onto UK boards, says: “Increasing diversity is key to driving profitable growth. Having a better balance – at least 30 per cent senior female leaders – positively influences a company’s culture and the decision-making process.”

Thomson Reuters, a leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals, conducted a study called Mining the Metrics of Board Diversity that showed how the progression of women on boards has increased gradually over the past five years and that, on average, companies with mixed-gender boards tend to perform marginally better than companies with no women on their boards.

Soft side of business

Emotional intelligence is not brand new, and nor is it the preserve of women. In fact, says Fiona Dent, in her teaching experience men are just as good at embracing the softer side of business behaviour as women. But back in the Fifties and Sixties it wasn’t the norm, as shows like Mad Men remind us.

Says Wade: “Skills for leadership were all about being rational, hard and technical, and emotions in the workplace wouldn’t have been seen as appropriate. But there has been a regendering of the workplace since the late Eighties and there’s now a much higher percentage of women in the workforce than before – and, of course, emotions are often associated with the way women operate. This change, along with the huge influence of Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, has given us all permission to use emotional intelligence in the workplace.”

Like it or not, softer skills are needed if we are to interface effectively with young employees. They are the ones who are driving changes in the way we operate. Dent says: “Our research shows that much of the changing nature of the business world is due to the way that young people want to work. It’s not necessarily about getting to the top of an organisation, but more about finding worthwhile work ‘for me as an individual’. Instead of being in awe of their boss, the way people used to be, these days they’re not so affected by power, so it becomes about collaboration, co-operation and effective communication.”

Wade agrees: “The millennial generation are all about sharing. So whether or not you get the right calibre of staff, you as a manager will need soft power as a skill in order to engage with the upcoming millennial generation. It’s not about frowning at them if they want to connect, but being a role model for connecting.”

Business academics have recognised the changes in the way companies must operate. As Professor Raymond Caldwell of Birkbeck College, University of London, told the British Journal of Management:

“As hierarchy is weakened and authority devolved, managers are increasingly expected to overcome organisational boundaries and bring teams and groups together to manage change. Usually this requires the development of a new set of soft interpersonal skills: listening, communicating, team-building, facilitating, negotiating and conflict resolution.”

Beverley Skeggs, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, says that team playing is vital for durable success: “There are two strands of thought in management theories – the more feminine team playing and the masculine, ruthless, singular individual. And it’s usually the team-playing collective that works, because it’s long-term and developmental, and people don’t burn out – you get the best out of them. The singular competitive individual can’t get the best out of people or himself – it’s a time-limited model and lots of studies point to the burnout of high-performing people unless they surround themselves with really good teams.”

Gently does it

Hand in hand with team playing goes effective communication – and a failure to communicate can be risky. Management author and expert Peter Drucker says: “Sixty per cent of all management problems are the result of poor communications.”

A firm believer in the importance of soft power, Drucker warns that it is not given enough credence. “Good communications and interpersonal relations are imperative to overall business performance and sustainability. Yet they tend to be neglected in terms of their importance.”

Marianna Fotaki, professor of business ethics at Warwick Business School, concurs: “A useful way to redefine the business paradigm would be to accept that it’s not about cut-throat, win-lose competition, but actually win-win.” She cites the example of the Patagonia clothing company whose management team decided, instead of endlessly growing, to reinvest in its own people and its product. The company has thrived, showing the value of soft skills instead of growth at any cost.

Fotaki adds: “We have to recognise a whole set of useful characteristics in all humans and then find ways of building business models that draw on those.” She recommends growing and nurturing your workforce so that you keep them. “The company that is a nice place to work for has a chance of actually being a successful company in a sustainably successful way. It’s not about giving high salaries, but about building on people’s strengths and nurturing them. And making people feel what they give is of value to the company.”

Embracing these skills can prove challenging if they don’t come naturally.

As Wade points out, there aren’t many opportunities for busy executives to develop them, and training courses often involve testosterone-driven activities such as paintballing. As a result, she has devised more innovative ways to teach soft techniques, using spa spaces to give business leaders the chance to see the skills in action – and these are proving popular with masculine sectors. Spa-based courses make teams feel nurtured, but also they learn how to impart passion and connect meaningfully with colleagues. “Delegates working on problem solving, for example, will do a thinking exercise while having a treatment delivered by a therapist who is, of course, role modelling compassion in the workplace.” And, of course, seeing a feared boss or combative colleague in a towelling robe and slippers can only be a humanising, levelling experience.

So don’t fear your feminine side – it could turn out to be your biggest asset.

As Rowena Ironside, chair of Women on Boards UK, says: “As the pace of change accelerates, and innovation and flexibility become more important to organisational survival, the ‘soft power’ leadership behaviours used more often by women than men will become increasingly essential and valued.” Softly does it.

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Soft power: the expert view

Fiona Dent

“Use your full range of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and capabilities when working with others and recognise the importance of integrity, credibility, trust and respect as ways of developing your status. Use your influence and persuasiveness to get people’s buy-in and support by achieving mutually acceptable outcomes.”

Glenis Wade

“Learn how to ask for help. We learn more from making mistakes so don’t be afraid of risks. It’s the cultures that are not afraid of failure that are the ones that succeed. Some managers feel they have to be perfect, but admitting that you’re not is healthy. So it’s important to look back on your journey and think about what went wrong, building reflexivity into your operations. Trust in yourself, and in your ability to cope, and be resilient.”

Marianna Fotaki

“Value loyalty and invest in skills and retention of those skills. Let employees build on the continuity of what they’ve achieved, and see their projects grow. Nurture your workforce and encourage them to feel pride in your company, so they want to come to work and actually take joy from it.”

About author

Marina Gask

Marina Gask

Marina Gask is a journalist, copywriter, blog coach and press consultant, advising business owners on press USP and strategy.

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