Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hard Power and Soft Power

When people talk about power, they invariable are referring to hard power.

Hard power is the power of authority and might.  Hard power is swift and decisive.  Hard power is the ability of the President of the United States to order assassinations, and have them carried out half a world away by drone strike.

In our focus on hard power, we often neglect soft power.

Soft power is the power of ideas and persuasion.  Soft power is slow and uncertain.  Soft power is the ability of a preacher's daughter (Harriet Beecher Stowe) to pen a first novel (Uncle Tom's cabin) that changed the course of America's history.

In the short term, hard power seems more powerful.  Hard power is like using dynamite to blow a hole in the ground.  But in the long term, soft power prevails.  Soft power is like the ability of running water to carve out the Grand Canyon.

If you want to make change in the world, whether as an activist, a politician, or an entrepreneur, it is tempting to focus on hard power.  And if your time horizon is short, this focus makes sense.

But if you want to make lasting change, and you care more about making the change happen than about the opportunity to take credit for that change and bask in the adulation of the crowd, you should focus on soft power.

Hard power ends when you no longer have a gun to hold to someone's head.  Soft power lets you plant an idea in someone's head that no gun can remove, and that can be passed from mind to mind until that idea becomes the reality of the world.

It is altogether appropriate that we've marked the anniversaries of the Gettysburg Address and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Abraham Lincoln wielded hard power like no other president before him.  Yet he lives on in our memories as our greatest president because he used his soft power to speak to the ages.  John F. Kennedy's life was ended by the exercise of hard power--an assassin's bullet. But he will always be remembered for galvanizing the country to put a man on the Moon.

As a leader, you can choose what power you wield.  Choose wisely.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Read promiscuously and make connections

When entrepreneurs ask me where to find good ideas, I advise them to read promiscuously and make connections.

(No, this isn't some kind of advertisement for Tinder or Grindr.)

To read promiscuously means to be voracious and unselective.  I was at the library on Sunday, looking for audiobooks, and as usual, I picked up a selection.  I don't just listen to business books (though I do like them--it was great when I was a student at HBS and could raid our business libraries).  I almost always check out a broad assortment, including histories, mysteries, travel books, and many more.

If you tell me that you read for two hours a day, I'll get a good impression.  If you follow up by telling me that all that time is spent on TechCrunch and Hacker News, I'll lose that good impression.  You can't get interesting ideas by reading what everyone else reads.

To make connections means to read actively, rather than passively.  As I read, I'm constantly thinking about implications, identifying similarities, and trying to generalize to situations in my own life.

This has always been the issue with how we teach literature in this country--we treat literary analysis as an academic discipline.  And while it's cool to be able to explain how crop yields help explain Chaucer's choices in the Canterbury Tales, literature matters because it is universal.  The reason we think a great book is great is because it's relevant to our own lives.

Relevance is in the eye of the beholder; the more relevance you see, the more interesting ideas you'll have.

Now go out there and read.

Say Just Enough, But Not Too Much

Entrepreneurs are passionate, but this passion can be their undoing.

One common mistake entrepreneurs make is to say too much.

It's easy to understand why.  First, entrepreneurs know a lot about their space and their product.  Second, they love the subject so much, they'd happily expound for hours.  Finally, they can't help wanting to show the work they've put in.

The problem is, this leads them to commit the cardinal sin of sales: Saying too much.

It's a delicate art--you have to say just enough to convince a buyer/investor/job candidate, but no more.  Say too little, and they won't be persuaded.  Say too much, and you can talk yourself out of a deal.

Once you've convinced someone, it's time to shut up and ask for the order.

This principle applies to everything, from emails to phone calls to full-on presentations.  It doesn't matter how much material you've prepared--once you've achieved your goal, shut up and ask for the order.

For an email, that means that you should never write more than 100 words, and the last sentence should spell out exactly what you want the other party to do.

For a call, it means getting to the point fast, and then letting the other party ask questions.

For a pitch, it means reading the room and picking the right time to jump straight to the investment thesis slide.

Say just enough, but not too much.