Lesson on the Powers to Lead


Book CoverLast week I had an opportunity to listen to an interesting presentation.  Dr. Joseph Nye,  the former dean of the JFK School at Harvard, spoke on his new book, “The Powers to Lead,“ at a breakfast seminar sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government.  

He said he wrote his book based on a “distillation of the literature” from psychology, organizational theory, and political theory. The insights he shared with the attendees seems particularly relevant to prospective leaders in the next President’s administration.


Dr. Nye says “power” is the ability to influence — using threats, carrots, or inspiration.  He describes two types of power – “soft power” and “hard power.”  Using them in combination effectively results in “smart power.”


He says soft power has three attributes: 

·         emotional intelligence (understanding yourself and how you are seen by others),

·         a powerful vision of the future (realistic, not delusional!), and

·         the ability to effectively communicate (both verbally and non-verbally).


In contrast, hard power has two attributes: 

·         the organizational ability to manage information flows and

·         Machiavellian political skills (which he also called “bullies with a vision” like Admiral Rickover).


Dr. Nye says smart power is the ability to know which of these hard-soft attributes to use in which situation.  He observes that effective leadership is context-dependent.  So, having “contextual intelligence” is an important skill.  I couldn’t agree more! 


He also noted, in response to an audience question, that a big challenge facing the next group of government leaders will be adjusting government to the new generation entering public life – the Millennial generation.  He observes that, as workers, they expect to be able to work in a peer-to-peer, horizontal environment, not the traditional hierarchical bureaucracy.  And, as citizens, they expect their political leaders and government to work that way as well.  He thinks that this implies the growing importance of developing and using “soft power” skills.


Interestingly, this assessment is reflected in another book, by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of
American Politics
,” which offers a similar thesis about how the next President will face a very different set of management challenges and public expectations about how government should work.


So what will this mean for those working for the new Administration?  Well, like past White Houses, the staff will tend to be quite young, right from the campaign.  Which means Millennials.  And they will bring a new style of work and expectations to government.  Government leaders will need to be able to adjust quicker, collaborate more readily, and adopt technologies that – while common in the private sector – will be new to many in government. This will take “smart power!”

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One Response to “Lesson on the Powers to Lead”

  1. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    Your blog back in November on “The Back Office”seem to fit into the needs you pointed out in the segment. The informal webs between various entities within the government and in partnership with the government have had a difficult time in the present era of command and control but have survived out of sheer necessity. I have been keeping track of some activity and if these underground activities and they are alive and surviving. If there is a real press for change and bring the Feds out of their command and control fortifications and into the age the egalitarians these folks would be a good stating place.

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