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Leadership Frame #5: Soft Power leadership for professional service firms

Posted in Leadership, Legal Profession, Management, Professional Service Firms (PSFs)

Soft Power leadership may provide a helpful framework of understanding and application for leaders or senior managers of professional service firms (PSF), particularly law firms.

Undertaking a leadership role in a PSF has always presented some unique challenges around power and leadership styles.  The reason is that the traditional sources and trappings of power and authority available to leaders in the corporate world are almost never available to PSF leaders.

The exercise of leadership is also different – even where authority has been granted, it is usually exercised with real care and discrimination. I believe Soft Power is a style of leadership which can play a role here – it relies on influencing others based on one’s set of values, personal attributes and leadership style, rather than traditional bases for power. I think it makes sense for PSFs. If it can be made to work, it affirms you don’t need the normal corporate sources of power to succeed in leadership.

Soft Power - a style of leadership which relies on influencing others based on one's set of values, personal attributes and example rather than traditional bases for power (iPad graphic by Sharon Larkan with thanks to Alan Moir for the idea)

What is Soft Power leadership? Let’s break it down, in reverse order:

  • leadership means leading or going forward, the skill to help a group define and achieve a common purpose. There are various types of leadership, but all have in common a relationship with followers and therefore some form of power over them. Leadership and power are therefore inextricably intertwined.
  • power at a general level is the ability to influence the behaviour of others, to get the outcomes one wants, through the possession of certain capabilities or resources.  You can coerce with threats, induce with payments or attract or co-opt.
  • Soft Power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. It relies on influencing others based on one’s set of values, personal attributes and leadership style. It is about attracting and co-opting. On the other hand hard power typically comes to the fore through authority and coercion, and for countries, through military might and economic power (e.g. USA and China, although China is studying the application of Soft Power principles).

Where did the concept of Soft Power come from? It was developed by Joseph S Nye  and is summarised in this HBR article from which a couple of the above points are taken. I was introduced to it by Professor Naren Chitty who founded the Soft Power Advocacy and Research Centre (SPARC) at Macquarie University Sydney around soft power principles.

Soft Power:

  • resources are hard to control and can be challenging to apply in practice – this is because their effectiveness dependes on their acceptance by the receiving audience;
  • is about getting others to want the outcome you want – in this way it co-opts others;
  • gets outcomes because others admire your values, emulate your example or aspire to your level of success, achievement or openness;
  • is based on the ability to shape the preference of others and is the power to attract rather than coerce;
  • means the leaders purpose is followed not because of explicit threats or exchanges;
  • uses a different currency to get co-operation – not force, not coercion, not money, not raw authority;
  • uses an attraction to shared values and the justness of contributing to the achievement of those values;
  • is distinguished from hard power, but it is really only a question of degree of how far apart it sits on the power spectrum; and
  • in the information age becomes even more important. Possessing information and the ability to easily and powerfully share it and be believed, becomes an important source of attraction and power. Soft Power leaders in the information age will have many channels of communication to help frame issues. This credibility will be enhanced where they have a sound set of values and policies to back this up. The implications will be obvious.

In my experience a more consultative style of leadership is needed and has always worked best in the professional services firm environment. I think that this has been the case since partnerships first evolved. In this sense Soft Power is not new. However, depending on the circumstances, one sometimes has to exercise a measure of hard power to get the job done; it is all a matter of degree.

Putting Soft Power to work: It is important that leaders understand their own natural leadership styles of thinking, behaviour and how they interact with others. Sometimes this can be done simply through high levels of self-awareness or by talking to colleagues and friends. Or one can rely on other more formal means of feedback. A leadership impact diagnostic can also be helpful. Once a leader has clarity around these styles, it is useful to choose some attributes that the leader feels will be helpful to use and develop given the requirements of a current role.

This is the good thing about leadership; unlike personality and intelligence (IQ) leadership styles and thinking can be developed and changed. Experienced leaders will tell us too that we need to adapt our styles depending on the circumstances before us – sometimes that will call for ‘tough’ hard power leadership, other times a much more consultative form of leadership, like Soft Power.

Soft Power leadership has been around without the tag/name for some time – it provides a useful frame of reference, similar to a more consultative considered approach for leaders of professional service firms and law firms. As noted, with all leadership styles and situations, different circumstances may call for different approaches from time to time.

I would appreciating hearing whether you have experienced Soft Power in practice or exercise it yourself.

all the best, Sean, Edge International.