Back in the 1990s, political scientist Joseph Nye of Harvard University coined the phrase “soft power” in the book, “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” to describe the ability to gain cooperation and agreement through appeal and attraction rather than the use force or money. He theorized one didn’t have to always use hard power or the commanding power of ordering others around to get what he wants.
“Soft power” was predicted to be the future for business leadership. Fast forward to 2015, and now some workplace experts say that as more women are becoming heads of major corporations, the executive woman can more effectively use soft power as a means of persuasion.
“Women do better in a team environment; men, in general, like a top-down approach. Women tend to like a more collaborative and level-playing field approach,” explains Kathi Elster of K Squared Enterprises and co-author of “Mean Girls at Work,” “Working with You is Killing Me,” “Working for You Isn’t Working for Me” and the co-host of the podcast, My Crazy Office. “I don’t think many people understand soft power; they still may see it as a weakness, but in my executive coaching practice I see more and more leaders moving away from the old model and moving into the new softer form of leading,” she notes.
And actually, soft power seems to work best for women in charge. “Women cannot use a stereotypical male leadership style and get ahead. In fact, there is no quicker route to termination, or stagnation in advancement, than to take a ‘hard power’ position,” explains Carol Vallone Mitchell, author of the recently released book “Breaking Through B*tch: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly.” “Women use ‘soft power’ in order to effectively wield power. They influence ‘higher-ups’ to passionately join forces with them to make something important happen.”
People, however, still don’t fully grasp the concept of soft power. As Mitchell explains, soft power “is sometimes viewed as manipulative.” But it is more complex than that. “Persuasion, as my research with successful women leaders shows, involves seeing an emotional connection to who (person, group, company, country) you want to convince to follow your agenda and hooking into it,” Mitchell points out. “Women move their agenda forward by finding others in power who share their passion for achieving what they strive for. It is a collaborative approach where others are promoting her agenda with her. And importantly, their collaborators don’t feel overpowered by her.”