What Can Make You Soft?

A short while ago the bright lights at McKinsey and Co. announced that they had been thinking seriously about the role of business in society, and were prepared to go beyond the usual bromides about corporate social responsibility. An article by Ian Davis in The McKinsey Quarterly focused on the need for CEOs and other executives to wield “soft power” — which Harvard’s Joseph Nye describes as “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals.”

With carrots and sticks you can coerce people to do what you want; but carrots can get expensive and people resent too much stick. The soft leader takes a different and more subtle tack, entering into controversy to set or re-set an agenda, to frame the discussion, to gain credibility on an issue, and, above all, to lead by persuasion.

For Nye, whose book deals mainly with the exercise of American political power, soft is the road not taken by the Bush administration after 9/11 and in the war on terror. (If anything he is far too soft in his criticism on this point, but maybe he is just practicing what he preaches, persuading gently rather than berating and bashing.)

For Davis, soft power may not be the be all and end all of contemporary business leadership, but it’s an important ingredient. Though business leaders have been historically reluctant to enter into social and political discussions for fear of being compromised or caught up in controversy, Davis writes, they “are particularly well positioned” to exercise soft power on local, national and global issues.

Why? Partly because CEOs and other business leaders are used to dealing with “complex trade offs”; surely, Davis reasons, they can readily apply those skills to the “big social issues from climate change to health care to poverty. Business, particularly big business, has a vital role in resolving these immense challenges.” Not to mention a vital interest in directing the outcome of public debate.

You’d think that lobbying Congress, investing in some feel-good PR, and pulling the honeywagon up Capitol Hill would be enough. But it’s not. In an article in the Economist magazine, Davis makes the exercise of soft power out to be the fulfillment of a Rousseauist social compact; but it’s less a social obligation than a prudent calculation, to be involved in real world issues, risking some public controversy, perhaps, but in the long run putting oneself in a better position to manage risk.

The thinking here is that by directing social and political change, or at least having a hand in it, you will be better positioned to anticipate it, exploit it, profit from it, turn it to your advantage. That all sounds very compelling — as long as you don’t worry too much about the tendency of history to take unexpected turns. Still, it’s worth considering how many times an unforeseen twist, or an unintended or unanticipated consequence, has undone even the best generals, politicians, diplomats, revolutionaries, dictators, bosses, organizers and televangelists.

Enter at your own risk. My main concern is this: how do you learn to wield soft power? Where do you learn how to exercise it? Who teaches soft skills? For the ancient world, there were schools of rhetoric to teach the art of soft power or persuasion. In the early modern and modern worlds, there were schools of liberal arts. But where do you learn those arts now?

Certainly the business schools are ill-equipped to teach rhetorical prowess and the practice of soft power in any real way; language and constructive use of language (in dialogue, in persuasion), the ability to translate, literally and figuratively, among different languages or different ways of seeing the world, the ability to parse a conversation or to frame a conversation at the outset, to place events and people and positions in historical context so as to better understand them — all this requires a kind of patience and diligence that has not exactly been institutionalized in our MBA programs.

So what about the liberal arts? What about the humanities? Can they make softer leaders? Maybe. If the deliberate and careful study of language, history and language arts has an important social and civic function, it surely must be something like this.

But it’s the rare CEO who has spent much time studying the humanities, except to fulfill a set of requirements or to play at business ethics; and, what’s worse, it’s the rare humanities program or humanities curriculum which thinks that its business is to teach anything practicable in the practical world. Teaching “critical thinking,” as many humanities programs claim to do, may be a start, but when thinking is captive to a particular cultural and political agenda, as it too often is, it ceases to be critical; and learning to use theoretical jargon is no substitute for learning how to parse a sentence in Latin or Russian or French — or English, for that matter. Grammar always trumps theory.

Peter Drucker was aware of this deficit in our educational system. In Managing in the Next Society, Drucker saw the need for a third way — a way in between the mix of practical education and new age sophistry of the business schools on the one hand and the narcissism, self-destructiveness, and ethical irresponsibility of liberal arts programs on the other. In the meantime, those who want to soften themselves up to lead in the real world will have to be autodidacts, or — more likely — flush with money to hire people who know how to institute softness. And that is the rarest kind of business consultant. It’s a hard world out there.

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