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Leadership that Costs Less

By Sangeeth Varghese

Leadership is not cheap. It has a cost attached to it. As leaders try aligning more and more people towards their vision, they typically end up spending either on things that enhance their intimidation power or on things that can provide their followers with some extrinsic motivation. Intimidation includes the leader’s authority or position, while motivation typically consists of payouts to the followers like salary or promotions. As a leader moves up the ladder, these costs do not come down, as generally expected, but tend to go up. Higher up, he is exposed to more multi-stakeholder situations, there are more democratic institutions, and, power does not hold as much value, short-term incentives cannot sway important decisions. A leader suddenly realizes that his authority, wealth or resources are producing lesser outcomes than they used to.

But there is another way; one that is difficult to follow, lesser in cost yet greater in impact - something which the Harvard Professor Joseph Nye Jr. calls ‘soft power’. Soft power uses a different type of currency — not authority or money — to engender cooperation. It uses an attraction to shared values and calling on the duty of contributing to the achievement of those values. It rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. For example, in the business world, smart leaders know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, but also involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want. Soft power is about making yourself sufficiently friendly and attractive - that people want to help you achieve your objectives because they believe that these objectives are their own.

This attractiveness of a leader often takes two shades. First, where you draw people to your vision through your charisma - unswerving commitment, contagious ebullience and personal magnetism - helping you connect with people at a deeper level. And second, empathy, where you work on your preferences in such a way that they seem legitimate, aligned with the culture and values of the people, that they want to follow you and want to make you win. Charisma is more internal oriented attractiveness where the focus is on leader’s qualities, while empathy is more external oriented, with the focus on how the leader’s values are in line with that of his people.

Both charisma, as well as empathy, become just shades in the same drawing as a leader moves up. They could be used in differential quantities, but you need a bit of both to truly exercise soft power. But definitely with soft power on your side, it would cost you less to lead. And it would cause more to be led.


* Sangeeth Varghese is a leadership thinker from the London School of Economics and Harvard, & the founder of Leadburg, a mobile based behavioural analytics platform.

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