Soft leadership can be defined as the process of setting goals; influencing people through persuasion; building strong teams; negotiating them with a win-win attitude; respecting their failures; hand-holding them; motivating them constantly; aligning their energies and efforts; and recognizing and appreciating their contributions in accomplishing organizational goals and objectives with an emphasis on soft skills. It is based on the right mindset, skill set and toolset.
Soft skills are the deciding factor for successful soft leadership. In this cut-throat competitive world, what makes the total difference is your soft skills in the workplace, either as an employee or as a leader. As an employee, you learn to behave well as per the situation, needs and feelings of others. And as a leader, you get the tasks executed smoothly without inviting any troubles and ill will among your employees. Hence, soft leadership equips organizations with several advantages for achieving excellence and effectiveness. It helps in transforming the personality, attitude and behavior of the people. It balances people and task-orientation proportionately without compromising the organizational goals and objectives. It emphasizes empathy, which is the ability to step into the shoes of the partners and look at the issues objectively to achieve the desired outcomes effectively. There is the least scope for conflicts, thus minimizing organizational politics. Since this style cares for people, it minimizes attrition in the workplace as employees can balance their personal and professional life. Employees can manage their time effectively as there is less pressure due to people-orientation rather than task-orientation.
Change is the only thing constant in this world. People often resist change due to apprehensions. However, soft leadership facilitates change smoothly and successfully. It manages complexity and uncertainty effectively. All stakeholders are happy as it advocates a win-win approach to promote fraternity and brotherhood. Hence, there are innumerable advantages to adopting this leadership style. Additionally, soft leaders do not micromanage. They give a free hand to their partners to perform. They empower and encourage their partners to explore and experiment. They respect the failures of their partners and consider them learning experiences. They hand-hold their partners and emphasize long-term goals in getting the tasks executed.
Hard versus soft leadership
There are several differences between soft and hard leadership. Soft leadership emphasizes persuasion while hard leadership emphasizes pressure; soft leadership focuses on transformation while hard leadership focuses on task; soft leadership emphasizes soft power while hard leadership pushes hard power; and soft leadership focuses on soft tactics while hard leadership focuses on hard tactics. Mahatma Gandhi rightly differentiated, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is 1,000 times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.” Soft leaders adopt transformational, democratic, servant and authentic leadership styles while hard leaders adopt the transactional and autocratic styles of leadership. Soft leaders are others-centered leaders while hard leaders are often self-centered leaders.
Hard leaders work within the organizational culture while soft leaders change the organizational culture. Hard leaders think within the box while soft leaders think outside the box. Hard leaders are competitive, data-driven and short-term focused while soft leaders are creative, collaborative, organic and long-term focused. Hard leaders take people where they want to go, while soft leaders take people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but where they ought to be. Soft leaders don’t force people to follow ― they invite people on a journey. Soft leaders focus on strategies while hard leaders focus on processes.
Hard leadership suits when the problems are simple and clearly defined, while soft leadership suits when the problems are complex and need a lot of patience and perseverance to resolve. Soft leadership is centered on the core values of authenticity and empathy. It focuses on the principles of caring, appreciation, persuasion, negotiation and empowerment. Soft leaders work for a higher collective purpose, mission and vision. They inspire their employees to work harder, smarter and wiser, emphasizing a common vision and organizational culture. It helps them connect with other employees emotionally to contribute their best.
In contrast, the hard leaders focus on specific goals and agreed-upon rewards, which are purely transactional. Soft leaders are considered to be flexible, offering guidance to employees, yet allowing them to take initiative and be creative. In contrast, hard leaders are considered more goal-focused, less caring for their subordinates’ individual needs, or absent from the process of decision-making. Precisely, hard leaders encourage competition while soft leaders encourage collaboration. Since soft leaders focus on people-orientation, they will be able to provide satisfaction to employees and enhance organizational productivity and performance. Additionally, they lead by example, walk their talk and empower others with all the tools necessary to succeed and make a difference.
Hard versus soft leaders ― with examples
Political leaders like George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mikhail Gorbachev, Angela Merkel and Aung San Sui Kyi fall in the category of soft leadership while Harry Truman, Joseph McCarthy, Charles de Gaulle and Lee Kwan Yew fall in the category of hard leadership. Corporate leaders like Jeff Immelt of General Electric and Timothy Cook of Apple Computers fall in the bracket of soft leadership while Jack Welch and Steve Jobs fall in the category of hard leadership.
Soft leaders lead by collaboration and consensus. They take inputs from all sources and then make decisions. They follow the democratic and participative leadership style. In contrast, hard leaders are microleaders who adopt a “control and command” style of leadership. Soft leaders treat themselves as one of stewards and develop their people as leaders.
Given the choice between soft and hard leadership, it is definitely the soft leadership that matters in the end. To state further, soft leadership will stand the test of time while hard leadership will gradually fade away.