Updated Mar 13, 2022 - Economy

3 ways leaders can win with soft power

Illustration of a coffee mug with the Axios logo with steam forming a thought bubble

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

My first crack at leadership, in the garage-band days of starting Politico, was often a disaster: I had two speeds — fast and faster — and it drove others nuts. No wonder we soon had a reputation as a sweatshop with a high burnout rate.

Why it matters: Since then, a revolution has unfolded, with soft power replacing hard power, EQ trumping IQ, purpose rivaling profit. It is upending how everyone leads — including me.

You simply cannot be a leader at any level for very long if you don't adapt to these new realities with a soft-power mentality.

My backstory: I was a political reporter — self-absorbed, as reporters are — when I quit The Washington Post in 2006 to start a media company with two friends. My wife, Autumn, named it Politico, and I became the CEO. We turned an on-the-fly idea into a valuable company with 500 people, including reporters around the world.

  • My "business school" was screwing up. The first time I had to let someone go, I totally botched it. But using journalistic tools, I became a student of what works, what motivates people, and how to get the best from them.
  • Ten years after launching Politico, we started Axios. Five years later, our team is 400+. I took everything I'd learned by doing it wrong — and turned it toward building a company that has tons of ambition and insists on excellence, but with humanity cooked in.

Here are my 3 biggest discoveries that will help you think about deploying soft power in life and leadership:

  1. Be a killer with humility: There's no substitute for talent. But you'll hit a low ceiling fast if you're not humble enough to put others before yourself.
  2. Ditch jerks fast: This is true in life and business: Self-centered, egotistical asses are cancerous. Cut 'em out before their badness spreads — and infects you.
  3. Candor rules: Quit being indirect. So many people dance around hard discussions out of fear or insecurity. It's time wasted. There's magic in polite, direct, transparent conversations. Try it.

The bottom line: If you try to lead today with a "Mad Men" mentality, or work at a company run like that ... stop.

🏁 Editor's note: This article was first written for the launch edition of Axios Finish Line, which is part of the Axios Daily Essentials newsletter package. It published on March 10.

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