Tag Archives: soft power

Après Moi Le Déluge

APTOPIX Deep South Weather

From a 19 August 2016 Associated Press article, “Donald Trump to Travel to Flood Stricken Louisiana”.  Dee Vazquez, from left, helps Georgette Centelo and her grandfather Lawrence Roberts after they tried to recover their belongings from a family mobile home in Central, north of Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (David Grunfeld/NOLA.com The Times-Picayune via AP)

There are many things at work in Trump’s reckless plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement: it’s a sop thrown to big coal and voters in destitute coal-mining districts; it signals a retreat from twenty-first century global engagements and plays to the reactionary America First crowd; it’s a petulant thumbing of the nose at President Obama — the list could go on. The point I would make is simply this: the threat to withdraw from Paris demonstrates that the man about to assume the presidency has no understanding of agreements.

When I talk about his lack of understanding I’m not simply saying that this man, who reads from the teleprompter like a struggling fifth grader, doesn’t intellectually grasp what agreements are or how they work. He might well not; but the real issue, I fear, is that he has no inclination to learn. Time and again, the president-elect has shown us and told us that he does not respect agreements or appreciate the power they have. He will break them at will, because cooperative agreements and — perhaps more to the point — cooperation don’t appear to have a place in his moral outlook, his idea of power, or his general view of the world.

He is a purely transactional man. He doesn’t build cooperative agreements; he strikes deals that work to his advantage. This is a point I’ve noted before, when Martin Wolf wrote about Trump’s “transactional approach to partnerships” in the FT before the election. The foreign policy community is especially alert to (and rightly alarmed by) what this approach might mean in terms of existing alliances like NATO. As Ian Bremmer recently put it: “Trump views alliances transactionally, the way he views his businesses & marriages. Values don’t enter the equation.”

The nihilism — I think that might be the right word for what Bremmer is identifying — of the transactional man counts as both a moral deficiency and a political handicap. In the moral sense, others have no standing: there are no second persons; there is no plurality, only a first person singular. He and I have nothing between us, because (I am again quoting Bremmer) “common values don’t matter” and there is no enduring “we.” With no obligations to me, others or any who might come after, he is out to score. And should others refuse his terms, resist or demand recognition, he is likely to compensate for his lack of political prowess in the only way he can: by exerting hard power.

Après moi le déluge is pretty good shorthand for this attitude, especially as it relates to global climate risk.

Postscript: During a press conference this afternoon, President Obama himself offered a more hopeful view. He noted a “tradition” of carrying international agreements “forward across administrations” and stressed what he called “the good news” about Paris: the agreement formalizes practices already embedded in our economy, and we have already demonstrated that it’s possible to grow the economy and meet its goals. Paul Bledsoe took a different tack this morning on the BBC Newshour, when asked if Trump could simply undo Paris: “investments in the United States and around the world are being made by businesses who know that carbon constraints are inevitable.” Trump, he says, is “on the wrong side of history.”

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

Henry Hitchings and the Patron Saint of Asking

Henry Hitchings must be holding out on us. He claims in a New York Times Opinionator blog that the verb ask “has been used as a noun for a thousand years,” but he doesn’t provide a single illustration to support his claim. Puzzled, I went back to the OED, where, I recalled, I’d found only a single medieval instance of ask used as a noun over the past thousand years. It turns out I was wrong: the OED offers three examples – one from the year 1000, and two from the early 13th century. This makes the nominative ask “obsolete” in the view of the OED editors; and obsolescence doesn’t help Hitchings’s historical case. In fact, the literary evidence offered by the OED creates a whole host of problems for the argument Hitchings tries to advance in his Times blog – especially his effort to reduce questions of grammar to “aesthetic judgment” and “aesthetics.”

Let me focus on one medieval instance from the OED – the only one I remembered when I first commented on Hitchings’s article – to illustrate the point. This is from a medieval life of Saint Juliana called Þe Liflade of St. Juliana or Seyn Julian preserved in two manuscripts from the year 1230. There’s good reason I remembered it, because in many ways Seyn Julian is a text about a subject in which I have a growing interest — namely, the power of asking.

Juliana’s story is set in Nicomedia (now the Turkish city of Izmit) in the early fourth century AD, during the last years of Diocletian’s reign. In those days, Maximianus ruled as Augustus, Diocletian having concluded that the empire was too vast for one Caesar to rule. Throughout the empire, Christians are being persecuted – tortured, put to death, and, in one notable case, in Nicomedia, burned alive in the very church where they gathered to pray. According to Seyn Julian, Maximianus was determined to put “alle” Christians to death: “Alle cristenemen he dude to deþe.”

Juliana comes from one of Nicomedia’s ruling families, but she is (unbeknown to her parents) a Christian convert. So when a government official named Eleusius makes arrangements with Juliana’s father and mother to take her as his wife, things start to fall apart.

When Eleusius proposes to Juliana herself, she at first equivocates, saying that it would be better if he were a man of “more power.” Determined to win her hand, Eleusius makes the necessary gifts and supplications to the Emperor, and Maximianus elevates him to the position of “Justice.” (In other accounts he is made governor of Nicomedia.) He now has it in his “power” – the text repeats the word here and in several other places; “power” is really the subject of Seyn Julian, as it is of so many martyrs’ lives– to do what he will (“wat he wolde”).

What he will is not what he ought, of course, and it turns out that power, or at least the kind of official power Justice Eleusius has, is not enough to win Juliana’s hand. He proposes to her again, but fails:

ȝÞis Justice wende to Juliane. þo is power was.
And wende hire habbe as is spouse ac he failede of is as.

There’s that rare nominative usage – “failed of is as” (his ask), set playfully in the line against “habbe as is spouse”; the nominative form here rhymes with “was.” But Eleusius’ “as” – his bid for Juliana’s hand – is doomed to fail, the poem suggests, because it’s an assertion of his own will, or power, against a greater power at work in Juliana’s life: he may be a powerful agent of the Emperor’s law, but (as she finally confesses) she is a “Cristene woman.” Juliana wants to be of “one lawe” with Eleusius and she answers Eleusius’ request for her hand with a request of her own: “Bicome cristene for my loue”.

What follows is probably best described as a power failure: the world around Juliana goes very dark. When, after more cajoling, Juliana won’t come around, her father hands her over to Eleusius to do “wat he wolde.”  Humiliated, angry, determined to assert his power over this stubborn girl, Eleusius has Juliana stripped and subject to horrid tortures – whipped, stabbed, scalded and covered with molten “brass” (other accounts make it molten lead); she’s thrown into a dank prison cell and, after being tested by Satan and suffering fresh torments, she is finally beheaded and her body is set out for wild beasts to savage.


Juliana of Nicomedia, whose association with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the Patron Saint of Asking.

It’s a grisly tale, but the detailed and exaggerated account of Juliana’s torments only highlights the extent to which Eleusius has “failed of his as”: he resorts to violence, to coercive power, but that power cannot win love or obedience; it can merely kill. Juliana dies, a martyr for the asking, as it were. The tradition that associates her with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the patron saint of asking.

Seeing in Juliana’s story the limits of violence – the limits of the power that depends on violence or coercion – should help illustrate the point I touched on in an earlier post about asking: asking is not about subjecting another person to our will or power. It’s a non-coercive power arrangement between petitioner and respondent. The respondent always reserves the right to refuse or say no, and if the petitioner doesn’t recognize and respect that right, then nothing is being asked: instead, someone is issuing a command in the guise of a request.

Of course there are gray areas here. But for the time being I want to state the difference between asking and commanding starkly, because to my mind, this is one important aspect of the trouble with “the ask”: it converts a non-coercive request to a command, a form of coercion. It relies on what Hitchings – approvingly — calls a “distancing effect”; he thinks it makes asking “less personal” and that, in turn, “may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response.” But what would an “objective response” be, if not one in which both parties, the petitioner and respondent, were fully constituted as subjects and recognized one another as equals? Where is this objective world, and why does Hitchings seem to think it is exempt from the very power relations — the human relationships — that constitute it?

Invoking objectivity, Hitchings skirts the very issue Seyn Julian raises – the question of power, and how power works when someone asks someone else to do something. It’s here that political and moral – and not just aesthetic — considerations enter the discussion. “Sometimes,” Hitchings admits, “we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.” That’s tantamount to arguing that the ends justify the means.

In Seyn Julian or in the corporate boardroom, “the ask” turns a request into a foregone conclusion, a command. It becomes not a request but a statement about the objective world, about some requirement in the world that needs satisfying. Hitchings suggests the effect is largely psychological; “it focuses me on what’s at stake,” but the focus “the ask” achieves is the unwavering and unquestioning focus that obedient subordinates give to a superior’s command. It is not a request that one can meet with a yes or no. “The ask” already begins to limit the autonomy and the choices of the respondent; it aligns the petitioner’s will with the objective world. You’re not asking me anything; you’re ordering me about because that’s the way things are. Or so you say, Eleusius.

From Coffee Break to Chrysler’s Break

When Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz announced last month that all 7,100 shops around the country would close at 5:30PM on February 26 for a three-hour, company wide re-training session (just one measure Schulz was taking to boost a sagging stock price), Bob Nardelli must have been paying attention. Maybe it was even during those caffeine-deprived three hours that the Chrysler CEO first got the idea for the memo he issued on Thursday announcing that he had decided to expand the traditional model changeover period to a “two week mandatory vacation” — a company-wide shutdown.

The complete text of Nardelli’s badly written memo was made public right away.

Dear Employee,
A willingness to try something new has proven to be an important catalyst as we transform into The New Chrysler and, in many corners of this company, new ways of doing business are firmly taking root. That’s not just because of new leadership; it’s also a product of an “Own It” mindset. As a private company, we all need to think like owners and do our part to accelerate Chrysler’s recovery and transformation.
One idea that we have taken a fresh look at is the implementation of a two-week mandatory vacation shutdown. This year, in order to create better alignment and efficiency across organizational lines and boost productivity, Chrysler will use a corporate-wide vacation shutdown for the weeks of July 7 and July 14. While some operations will need to work during the shutdown to support business-critical activities and others may need to maintain minimal support staffs in place, most organizations should use this two-week time period to schedule employee vacations.
Employees who have already used their earned vacation days, have insufficient earned vacation for the year or are otherwise committed to noncancelable vacation plans during other time periods should work with their local management to make alternative arrangements. We ask that you approach this idea with an open mind and a team spirit. It’s going to take your cooperation and teamwork to achieve success.
Thank you in advance for your cooperation and continued support.

Several bloggers and auto-industry watchers rightly took Nardelli to task for sending an unambiguous distress signal to Wall Street and for hiding behind management speak when the occasion called for candor and plain speaking.

To be sure, the claim that Nardelli and his team will “create better alignment” and “boost productivity” by shutting down operations for two weeks is patently absurd, as if alignment and productivity are calibrations made to a machine during idle time. Or as if during a two week hiatus you can retool an industrial operation and a sales organization in the same way Schulz hoped to train coffee jockeys to make a better espresso in 3 hours.

The absurdity is compounded by Nardelli’s suggestion here that ordering everyone off the premises for two weeks somehow amounts to entrusting them with ownership of the business, or requires from them an “own it mindset.” The phrase is telling, and its provenance is likely the doctrine of “individual and organizational accountability” laid out by Tom Smith and his partners in The Oz Principle. The borrowing may be direct or indirect. The Oz Principle has enjoyed wide acceptance and popularity; its special mix of self-help methods and theoretical persiflage is pitched just right for managers who want their people to act as they would act if they had a real stake in the business. And it’s a lot easier to muster these platitudes than give them a real stake.

But if you are going to muster these platitudes, and you’re out to persuade people to act like owners, it’s probably best not to use the dead, impersonal, and distancing salutation “Dear Employee,” or opt for the passive voice over the active. As if to accentuate those stylistic or rhetorical shortcomings, Nardelli’s letter never once uses the first person singular — always “we” — as if “Bob,” the signatory of the letter, is merely a front man for a decision making group. How does any of that add up to individual accountability?

Maybe it’s unfair to put this kind of pressure on an internal email, but there’s more than bad writing here. If this were simply a matter of management theory once again inflicting its ugly language and conceptual inanities on an office memo, there would be nothing remarkable at all in Nardelli’s note. Management speak provides a refuge from, and a hedge against, hard decisions; and it’s often as sinister as it is cowardly: it’s a way of keeping the truth from people even as you pretend to engage them candidly.

No surprise if there are cynics or cowards in the Chrysler executive suite; but the larger point is that the news this week was really about a failure of leadership at the automaker — or at least of the kind of leadership the present moment demands. Nardelli established his reputation at GE and Home Depot wielding what Joseph Nye would call “hard power,” which consists mainly in threats and inducements. “Soft power,” on the other hand, consists in the ability to attract people and lead them by inspiration; the evidence suggests that Nardelli wields it about as gracefully as Hillary Clinton. Even when he’s trying to be considerate and respectful — please keep an open mind about these new policies — Nardelli sounds wooden, rehearsed, flat.

Is Nardelli just tone deaf? Maybe. For Nye, it’s more than achieving the right pitch. There is a third power — “smart power” — that knows which kind of power, hard or soft, suits which occasion, and how the two kinds of power can be combined and applied in a specific context, to effect change or make people do what you need or want them to do. And in addition to smarts, you also need grace in execution.

Smart power also requires an awareness of history, of the moment in which you find yourself. And there’s no sign at Chrysler of an honest reckoning with history. So while Nardelli’s letter may have been lacking in grace, or downright awkward, because he isn’t accustomed to addressing (or regarding) his Chrysler employees as real stakeholders, it’s also pretty clear that like every other U.S. automaker he is trying to buy time with words, to persist in denial or remain willfully blind, to hold out for just a few more years, rather than see and seize change.

Chrysler along with the entire U.S. auto industry is in dire straits. They are relics of an industrial era and an old economy that has run its course. At the very moment that Nardelli and other leaders should be planning for real “transformation” — how to leverage their existing infrastructure, reorganize their business for the 21st century, and take calculated risks on new post-industrial-era services and technologies — they are exerting their nearly spent powers to stay the course, shine it up, scrape off the rust and call it new.

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.