The last time I checked, Amazon offers more than 56,000 books on subject of leadership in business. So, what does Joseph Nye offer in this book that makes a significant, indeed unique contribution to our understanding of why some leaders are so successful and many others aren't? Responding to that is the focus of the remarks that follow in this review.
In Nye's opinion, insufficient attention has been paid to "the questions of power and leadership in a context broader than that of modern organizations." He goes on to assert that effective leadership requires "a mixture [and balance] of soft and hard power skills that I call [begin italics] smart power [end italics]. The proportions differ with contexts." To Nye, a leader can be - but need not be only a single -- individual that "helps a group create and achieve shared goals." Moreover, a leader is not only "who you are but what you do" and what a leader does frequently is determined by the given circumstances. If "context is more important than traits," the most effective leaders are those who help to achieve goals in (to borrow a phrase from Robert Bolt) "all seasons." Nye therefore views leadership as a process with three key components: leaders, followers, and context.
With regard to "soft" and "hard" power skills, they can be learned and they can be mastered. They enable a leader to respond most effectively to a given situation. "Soft power is not merely the same as influence, though it is one source of influence. After all, influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments. Nor is soft power just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to entice and attract. Attraction often leads to acquiescence. In behavioral terms, soft power is attractive power. In terms of resources, soft power resources are assets - tangible and intangible - that produce such attraction." Nye acknowledges that leaders also rely on "hard power" in certain situations to help achieve the given objectives with threats, intimidation, and perhaps even punishment. "Hard and soft power sometimes reinforce and sometimes interfere with each other." In this context, I recalled numerous situations in films and television shows when the "good cop, bad cop" strategy was used to obtain information.
"Almost every leader needs a certain degree of soft power" and a leader and a tyrant are polar opposites. Neither soft nor hard power is either good or bad, per se, nor is one always better than the other. To repeat, the ability to combine hard power and soft power into an effective strategy is "smart power." As Nye explains, "Leadership, like power, is a relationship, and followers also have power both to resist and to lead. Followers empower leaders as well as vice versa." There are no leaders without followers but, that said, "the power of leaders depends on the followers' objectives that are embedded in their culture." These are among Nye's core concepts and they will encourage those who read his book to re-consider (if not revise) their own ideas about leaders, followers, and contexts.
After I read Nye's book, I re-read two written by Howard Gardner, Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity as Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi and Leading Minds in which Gardner discusses Margaret Mead, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., George C. Marshall, Pope John XXIII, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Margaret Thatcher, Jean Monnet, and Mahatma Gandhi. All but Gandhi among those in the first volume are generally viewed only as thought leaders, not as social or political activists as are the subjects in the second volume. Their relationships with followers are also quite different. What can be said of all the leaders whom Gardner discusses is that each mastered both hard and soft skills but applied them in quite different contexts to achieve quite different objectives.
I am grateful, to Joseph Nye for his thought-provoking, at times counterintuitive perspectives on leaders, followers, and contexts. As a result, I have not only reconsidered my own opinions about those components in the power relationship, I have also reconsidered my perspectives on leaders throughout history, notably Julius Caesar, Joan of Ark, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Truman.