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April 3, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 3


What is the relationship between leadership and power? It depends on the leaders, the followers, and the context, according to Harvard Kennedy School Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

At the beginning of 1940, few would have guessed that Winston Churchill would emerge as the leader who would guide Britain through its greatest crisis of the twentieth century.

“Churchill would have been a minor figure in the history books if Hitler had not invaded France in May 1940,” Nye writes. “Then Churchill became the man who fit the moment. Churchill did not change; the context changed.” Facing an existential threat from Nazi Germany, the British people and Churchill’s colleagues in government were prepared to follow Churchill. All three elements — leader, followers, and context — aligned under Churchill in wartime. Five years later, with the war over in Europe, British voters removed Churchill from power. The context had changed once again.

Drawing a similar example from NASA history, Nye notes that James Webb, the agency’s legendary second Administrator, met with far greater success at NASA than he had during his earlier tenure at the State Department because the context at NASA ideally suited his leadership talents. “Quantitative measurement was the sharpest arrow in James Webb’s quiver, but it failed to penetrate the diplomatic culture of the State Department,” Nye concludes.

Nye, a professor of international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, has been studying the workings of power for forty years. He is best known for formulating the idea of soft power, which he describes as the ability to get others to “want what you want” by co-opting people rather than coercing them. In The Powers to Lead, he applies his understanding of power to leadership, noting that the latter cannot exist without the former. Successful leaders, he writes, “need the ability to understand the context so that hard and soft power can be successfully combined.”

Read more about Joseph Nyes book The Powers to Lead.

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