Gentle power: A Measure for Leadership Whose Time Has Come
Updated: Jan 13
Image courtesy of Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Today it’s almost too easy to find discouraging examples of unethical leadership that have caused companies and even entire countries to go down in flames. Still, the opposite is also true. Leaders who understand the difference between being ‘hardy’ and ‘hard’ — a trait I call ‘gentle power’ can be found in industries across the world, leading their workers to success, and reaping the benefits.
One example of gentle power is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In 2019, she had been fronting press conferences from left and right after the terror attacks that devastated Christchurch and left 51 people dead on March 15 of that year.
Tired but resolute, she finally arrived at a high school where three students had lost their lives in the massacre. After Ardern had finished speaking about her intent to change New Zealand’s gun laws, a student near the front row asked her, "How are you?"
An enquiry after her own wellbeing amidst one of New Zealand's darkest days clearly threw her.
"How am I?" Ardern repeated. "Thank you for asking," she said. "I am very sad."
A simple question, a simple answer that revealed the instinctive, bridge-building nature of her leadership, offering everyone there a compelling experience of remaining human first.
While power has been shown to erode the brain’s capacity for empathy and make leaders harsher, research on emotional intelligence shows that empathy is a crucial trait that makes leaders and their organizations more effective, encourages a positive team climate, and increases employee retention. Research into social neuroscience of empathy proposes that it is so because empathy is an essential aspect of informed decision-making in complex situations and acts as a buffer against cold, impersonal, and dehumanized business practices.
Gentleness in leadership is not about fragility or being passive. Instead, it’s the higher path of achieving, winning, and accomplishing — not through force or coercion, but through persuasion and the art of what I call gentle power. Philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville elaborates on this unexpected quality in his book “A small treatise on big virtues” by writing that gentleness is “courage without violence, strength without harshness, love without anger.”
“Empathy is a way to gather information about the people around you. Given how much of a leader’s job is managing relationships, leaders who lack empathy miss information that could be crucial for their own—and their organization’s—success,” wrote Daniel Goteman, a psychologist and award-winning pioneer of the research on emotional intelligence.
In a study from 2013 Joan Marques, a professor of management at Woodbury University's School of Business, concluded that over-emphasizing tough or hard skills and restraining the value of soft skills (such as self-awareness, empathy, and social skills) in the past decades has led to widely accepted ideas that leadership should be about boldness, charisma, and superior knowledge.
Marques says that unfortunately this idea has become adopted not only in corporate environments but also at business schools, perpetuating the flow of tough skill-focused entrants into the workforce. The challenge, according to her, is to convince the tough-skilled individuals of the importance to reestablish their internal balance, which has been systematically disrupted through their formal education.
Negative leadership traits and even toxicity can momentarily make leaders appear more effective attractive, innovative and even incite action in others. Ultimately, this harshness ends up always wreaking havoc in the very areas of trust and psychologically safe that are needed to enable collaboration, creativity, and trust that high-performing teams, for example, rely on. Gentle power, as in the example of Ardern or, say Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, is the artful and honest blending of intelligence and empathy to produce world class results—all while putting the value inherent in all human life and of wellbeing first. It’s not about sacrificing “winning” or losing ambition but is about choosing a more elevated and effective path that takes into consideration the big picture: the future of our environment, state of power in global leadership, the quality of life and wellbeing.
For soft-skill averse leaders, it’s important to continually develop emotional intelligence and intuition.
Marilyn Nyman, who has focused on engineers, highlights the benefits of focusing on the importance of developing communication, finding out how people see you, and finally, having sensitivity to other’s perceptions. However, as Goleman put it: “Leaders skilled at empathy are not ‘soft.’ They’re smart at using a powerful leadership tool.”
Ardern herself, who was named second in a list of the world's top 50 "thinkers" of 2020 for her governing 'ethos of kindness’ while producing practical results in response to COVID, has said that trying to be the strongest person in the room distracts for the real purpose of leadership, explaining “You can be both empathetic and strong.”
The world as we know it is breathing heavily under the weight of our past mistakes in leadership. However, the ever-fortifying dialogue that is being woven between science and the real-life example of leaders like Ardern—and who also exist around us in great numbers—makes me hopeful.
Leaders should steadily improve their gentle power skills
To be on board with the next era of leadership—that of power that is both strong and gentle— try incorporating the following practical steps into your daily life:
- Make growth toward your full potential and expression as a gentle leader a priority. Immerse yourself in inspiring research, stories, and seek mentorship from leaders you look up to or from an expert coach to have support.
- Train to be self-aware so you know what you are good at and what you need to learn. You can improve yourself awareness by asking for feedback from your subordinates as well as your superiors, and scheduling regular check-ins to monitor progress.
- Begin to observe how gracefully you handle conflicts. Be aware of how much psychological safety and trust you are able to foster with your employees, and how many opportunities you can create in the systems that you help run through your leadership.
What you have to gain are not only the science-backed benefits of gentle power, but a life of meaning and perpetual refinement.
Emilia Lahti (MSc, MAPP) is the Founder and creator of Sisu Lab that integrates healthy sisu and gentle power to the everyday practices of conscious leaders and their teams. In her Ph.D., she pioneers the research on the ancient Finnish construct of sisu that denotes courage in the face of adversity and the ability of humans to tap into hidden strength.
As part of her social action initiative called Sisu Not Silence that focuses on nonviolence and unlocking human potential through psychological safety, along with her personal quest to research human spirit, she completed a 2400km/50-day run/bike journey across the length of New Zealand.
You can read more about Emilia’s work or book her for a talk at www.sisulab.com.