Effective startup leaders cultivate soft power
Political scientist Joseph Nye’s framework for soft and hard power provides a useful lens through which startup leaders can solve organisational problems. Nye defines hard power as authority and capacity for coercion (primarily military power) and soft power as one’s capacity to persuade and influence (e.g., cultural exports like Hollywood, Bollywood, and K-pop)1. Let’s explore how this idea applies to startups.
Hard power in startups is about authority and structure. When a leader or team exerts hard power, they pull rank and make something happen by fiat.
- Top-down strategy.
- Job descriptions/playbooks and organisational charts.
- Performance reviews.
- Action items after meetings.
- Processes, checklists, compliance tasks.
Soft power in startups revolves around culture and influence. It’s about shaping behaviour not through directives but through the company’s ethos.
- Relationships within and between teams.
- Culturally/socially-enforced ways of working.
- Communication across teams (e.g., proactive status updates, all-hands presentations) and stakeholder management.
- Company vision and values.
- Workshopping and collaboration.
Soft and hard power are both essential to startup success. When a startup leader depends too heavily on hard power, their team becomes fractious, disagreements between teams become unnecessarily heated, and employee experience degrades. When a startup leader depends too heavily on soft power, expectations become unclear, teams lose urgency, work becomes casual, and teams fail to achieve their desired outcomes.
Exertions of soft and hard power are both fueled by trust. But, while management through hard power can sometimes degrade trust, management through soft power tends to build trust. This relationship between soft and hard power, where using soft power increases one’s future capacity for hard power, is why managers should rely on soft power wherever possible.
As a general rule of thumb, soft power increases collaboration and creativity, while hard power clarifies expectations and provides structure.
Using soft power effectively
It’s not enough to set the strategy. You need to sell it to your team and any teams you work with. Leaders should consider how their actions impact other teams and build trust with those teams through soft power relationship building and communication. Product teams, for example, are upstream from sales and support teams. To succeed, they must not only have an effective strategy; they need to win the support of these teams. When customer service or sales object to product strategy decisions, it’s often a result of a lack of advocacy and communication on the part of product management. It may not reflect on the strategy itself. This same dynamic plays out within teams when individual contributors disagree with a strategy imposed on them by management.
Leaders must win over influential people. Within every organisation, there are people with outsized influence over the company culture. While these people are usually managers, they can also be tenured or trusted employees who tend to be particularly vocal. A leader who has won the support of these influential people can more effectively exert hard power without blowback.
People over process and culture over rules. Because using hard power can cause unnecessary friction, consider whether you need to impose a new rule or process on your team to solve a problem.
Give people autonomy and accountability. People want to be in control. Whenever someone is capable of owning something independently, let them2.
Hire great people. Great people don’t require micromanagement or other hard power tactics to achieve great outcomes.
Don’t over-index on soft power. Teams and employees need to understand what they must achieve to drive the business forward. Clear position descriptions, KPIs (especially for customer service and sales roles), and well-outlined initiatives empower individuals to achieve. Hard power only disempowers when it’s unnecessary.
Every day, a great strategy fails in a startup because a leader underinvested in trust and relationship building or unnecessarily took autonomy away from individuals or a team. It’s not enough to have a plan. You also need a team that is eager to execute. Only soft power can give you that.
Nye, Joseph S., Jr. 2005. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. ↩︎
How accountability enables autonomy. ↩︎
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