The potency of persuasion

Power is essentially about achieving influence over others, says Wesley Clark. The final column in a three-part series on the nature of power.

By Wesley Clark, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- You're in a tough negotiation. The guy across the table is unconcerned, backed up by his cronies, prepared to wait you out. There is no legal recourse. You need power, real power. Like this: "Mr. President, may I see you outside, alone, for just a moment." "Certainly," Serb President Slobodan Milosevic replies, with that smug self-assurance characteristic of his dictatorship. "Mr. President," I begin, looking at him eye to eye that day in 1998 and speaking in an even voice, "perhaps you don't understand, but the United Nations has directed that you pull out your excess forces from Kosovo now. And if you don't, NATO is going to tell me to bomb you, and I will bomb you good."

That was raw power, the power to destroy, the power to, I hoped, compel - backed by the knowledge that the greatest air force in the world could deliver thousands of tons of bombs and rockets with pinpoint accuracy.

The General: He led the NATO missioin against Milosevic.

Not many people will ever have that kind of power, or have to use it. Power is essentially about achieving influence over others. Individuals strive for it, as do nations. Power serves to promote interests, compassionate or selfless interests. Employers exert it over employees, charitable donors over beneficiaries, regulators over businesses.

For years the U.S. used its nuclear arsenal to deter an attack by the Soviet Union, its system of laws and civil rights to win worldwide admiration, its wealth to support and influence international institutions.

Power is based on certain qualities or capabilities, but power itself is transactional and flows out of relationships, real or perceived. As a career Army officer, a commander in Vietnam, NATO commander during the Kosovo campaign, one-time presidential candidate, and now chairman of an investment bank, I have seen many kinds of power: the power of threats and of praise, of shock and surprise, and of a shared vision.

Sometimes threatening works, but it usually brings with it adverse consequences - like resentment and a desire to get even in some way. People don't like to be reminded that they are inferior in power or status. And so, in business, it is important to motivate through the power of shared goals, shared objectives, and shared standards.

Leadership is the art of persuading the other fellow to want to do what you want him to do, General Eisenhower wisely taught us decades ago, and it remains the best recipe I know for developing power. But how do you persuade others to follow? I've found three ways to do so: through education, through participation, and through the idea of co-option.

Take training. An ounce of education upfront is worth a pound of threats later on. This is one of the reasons that businesses both big and small spend millions on training and educating their new arrivals and their managers, all the way to the top. Employee education is one of the most cost-effective investments that businesses can make. But it isn't enough: Employees need to become vested in their work through participation. In the budget process, for example, team leaders are often required to present their own projections - in essence forming a contract to do their part to bring in revenues and hold down expenses. Such exercises are critical for empowering employees.

Co-option, the third step, is less tangible. It involves building and maintaining the emotional bonds of teamwork, loyalty, and trust. Essentially leaders have to sell themselves and their programs to their teams in order to influence.

As for Milosevic, well, he heard the threat, but he didn't like it. He pulled back his troops, but only temporarily. Soon he resumed the ethnic cleansing, and, following through on our threat, we did bomb Yugoslavia. After 78 days of attacks, coupled with diplomacy, we broke his will and eventually his grip on power. He died in prison in 2006, awaiting conviction as a war criminal. But to this day I often think about how many lives could have been saved if we had successfully persuaded him to share our vision.

Even if the stakes aren't as high, the same lessons should be applied to business - before you're tempted to threaten, seek to build a community of shared interests. Then you won't need to call in the U.S. Air Force.

Wesley K. Clark is the former supreme commander of NATO. He is currently a fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations, the chairman of Rodman & Renshaw, a full-service investment bank, and the author of "A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor, and Country."  Top of page