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Change Isn’t About Persuasion. It’s About Power

2022 September 11
by Greg Satell

The greatest misconception about change is that it’s about persuasion. All too often, we think that once people understand our idea, they will embrace it. Nothing can be further from the truth. Anybody who’s ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person of something.

Clearly, if you intend to influence an entire organization—much less an entire society—of something, you have to assume the deck is stacked against you. Still, organizations routinely pay armies of change management consultants to spend endless billable hours wordsmithing internal marketing campaigns. No wonder change so often fails.

The truth is that change isn’t about persuasion, but power. If you want change and can access the power to implement it, it will happen. If not, it won’t. That’s why effective change agents learn to leverage multiple sources of power. They mobilize people to influence institutions that can further their cause. That’s how you bring genuine transformation about.

The Paradox Of Hard Power

In early March, 2022 the prominent political scientist John Mearsheimer gave an interview to The New Yorker in which he argued that the United States had blundered greatly in its support of Ukraine. According to his theory we failed to recognize Russia’s role as a great power and its right to dictate certain things to its smaller and weaker neighbor.

That conclusion had a shelf like of about a week. Very quickly, the idea that America should have left Ukraine at the mercy of Russia became not only morally questionable, but patently absurd. How could such a respected expert of foreign affairs get things so wrong? Part of the reason has to do with his misinterpretation of key facts, but perhaps an even greater problem is his misunderstanding of power.

Mearsheimer’s error is that he focused on hard power—the power to coerce—to the exclusion of everything else. The problem with hard power is that the more you use it, the weaker it gets. After brutalizing its neighbors and meddling in the affairs of western nations for over a decade, Vladimir Putin had unleashed forces whose power greatly exceeded Russia’s.

Wise leaders, whether in a political or a business context, must learn to wield coercive power wisely. Use it too little and you undermine your authority and effectiveness, but use it too much and you undermine trust, which eventually will undercut and dilute your capacity. Hard power works best when combined with other sources.

The Attraction Of Soft Power

One factor that Mearsheimer failed to consider is soft power, which Joseph Nye, who coined the term, defined as the ability to influence others without coercion. To do that requires that you build up confidence and stature, which is no easy task. You can’t simply bully or bribe people into admiring and trusting you.

For years, Putin had wielded hard power, including Russia’s military, energy assets and intelligence services, with considerable skill and alacrity. Yet by doing so, he undermined his ability to attract others to his cause. In fact, many found Russia’s actions to be so repugnant and objectionable that they became determined to work against its interests.

Businesses, especially large corporations, are increasingly attentive to soft power. Consider Apple, which is no stranger to wielding hard power. It is known as a ruthless competitor, especially with regard to its supply chain. Yet it also works hard to position itself as a consumer advocate for privacy (while taking a shot at its competitors, of course).

One reason why protestors target corporations is that they are especially vulnerable to attacks on their soft power. When activists wanted to campaign against restrictive new voting laws in Georgia, they didn’t target the politicians who wrote the legislation, but companies like Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines. The firms quickly took a public stance against the laws.

Networked Power

As Anne-Marie Slaughter explained in The Chessboard and the Web, “Power in networks flows from connectedness: the number, type, and location of connections a node has… the most central nodes have the most connections and the highest likelihood of gaining more.” It is this power that Russia may have feared most in Ukraine.

It’s a salient fact that Russia sparked Euromaidan protests in 2013 not in response to any military moves, but because of an economic agreement between Ukraine and the EU. At the same time, Russia was trying to create its own network through a Eurasian Customs Union. Deeper connection between Ukraine and the EU would have undermined the centrality of that project, which had deep significance to Putin’s plans.

One of the biggest misperceptions about power in networks is that it depends on the number of connections. It doesn’t. What’s often far more important is your position in the network. Just like Ukraine’s position in between Russia and Europe increases its importance—and hence, its power—a person’s position in an organizational network or a company’s position in a market network can give them influence that far exceeds their hard or soft power.

In a now famous essay, Lina Kahn, who currently heads the Federal Trade Commission, pointed out that Amazon has attained massive network power by making itself the central node in then American retail industry. It’s not just Amazon either. The Federal Reserve has found that corporations have been increasing their power over the US economy in recent decades, leading to excessive market concentration in most industries, with lower competition and dynamism.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of what we expected from the digital era, which was supposed to be a democratizing force. Nevertheless, here we are…

The Revenge Of Power 

In 2013, the political scientist Moisés Naím published The End of Power, in which he argued that because of the increase in mobility and technology and decrease in poverty, the power of institutions was diminishing. Power hadn’t ended exactly but, as he put it, power was becoming “easier to gain but harder to use or keep.”

However, in his more recent book, The Revenge of Power, Naim points out that autocrats, governments, corporations and other institutions have been able to combine hard power, soft power and networked power to wring back control. It is the coordination and combination of the three, rather than a particular strength in any one, that yields results.

Unfortunately, few seem to learn this basic principle of change. The Occupy Movement focused exclusively on mobilizing people in the streets and, predictably, had no effect on institutions. Common Core activists, on the other hand, focused on institutions, left themselves open to mobilizations from grass-root activists and ran into serious problems.

To make a significant impact, you need to mobilize people to influence institutions and the best way to do that is through leveraging networks. In the final analysis, it is small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose that drives transformational change. As leaders, it’s our job to help those groups connect and to inspire them with purpose.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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One Response leave one →
  1. September 16, 2022

    Whatever you may think of Communism, and no matter how much the Soviet Union in its later days only ever paid lip service to concepts of equality, international brotherhood and that much-misused word “freedom”, the fact is that in the 20th century the USSR wielded immense soft power in the form of its outward support for these concepts. No matter that much of this was a façade and that allying your country, or your group, with the Soviets came with a lot of unwanted extras. Many people nonetheless looked to the Soviet Union as a guiding light in a way that no-one looks at Russia now. Vladimir Putin has yet to grasp this and probably never will. From the West’s point of view, this is a good thing.

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