Blogging CEO's - Soft CEOs.

The recent issue of McKinsey Quarterly talks about "Soft" Leadership in business. It makes a case about the need for CEO's to blog as a mean to exercise soft power. Soft power is the currency to mandate social change and nourish business.

Soft power is usually used in the geopolitical context. Joseph Nye (Dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government) says "Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will. Both hard and soft power are important in the war on terrorism, but attraction is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished."

McKinsey says that we could extend this soft power definition and apply it to the business world. In the business world, it usually means addressing controversial issues, attracting people to shared objectives or a vision and nurturing relationships.

Since Jonathan is the only CEO who blogs : I decided to look at Jonathan's blogs, from the view point of soft power and see how his blogs stack up on "soft power" skills mentioned in the quarterly. (He comes up with flying colors).

Addressing social and controversial issues

Businesses now hold a bigger say in social changes, than ever before. CEO's need to address controversial issues and not shy away from them. Usually when social issues coincide with strategic issues ; CEO's become reticent. But these controversial issues are the ones that usually let people understand where you stand and build your credibility

Jonathan has not been shy about talking about issues that have social impact and have coincided with Sun strategy: addressing digital divides (a consistent Sun theme), addressing power issues (electrical power and not soft power) ; mostly in context of datacenters, addressing the need to view IT as an electrical utility. We can see that the blogs have brought forth discussions on these myriad of topics : some of them controversial, some visionary.

Rating: Good

Dealing with Stakeholders - fostering and nurturing relationships

CEO's have to deal with stakeholders. Soft power requires diplomacy, requires fostering and nurturing relations with stakeholders.

If we look at the comments in the blogs, we notice that there are consumers who complain about problems with Sun (usually with getting new machines or so) ; but if we look couple of comments down, there is usually a Sun rep who will respond and fix the problem rightaway. Sort of super-ultra-fast service by the virtue of the blog being open (and a Sun reps worry that maybe Jonathan reads the comments too ;-) ). This provides an environment to nurture relations with the consumers.

Jonathan often makes comments about strategy, projects and products - this is way better than the usual conference call that CEO's give their shareholders.

Rating: Good

Attracting others to shared objectives and vision
OpenSolaris! Glassfish!!

Rating : Excellent


Soft power is difficult to control and exert. It will not work if tools like blogging are used for propaganda or you are perceived as a spin-master. It requires credibility. Jonathan has been blogging for about 2(?) years now. He has built his credibility (as a blogger) before becoming the CEO. The fact that Forbes writes about his blogging and asks for other CEO's to do the same reflects positively on his credibility as a blogger.

Rating : Excellent

It's been less than 6 months after Jonathan has become the CEO. The jury is out whether people will vote with their wallets (it appears that they are). It is clear that Jonathan has a deep understanding of the soft power he exudes via his blogs and knows how to use this well. Let's hope that CEO's in competing companies do not!!

And yes, a Soft CEO is a good CEO :-)


Not to go against the grain, really, but its worth pausing a second to consider if being the only CEO is a bit of an odd-ball thing or being ahead of the curve that others have to catch on to. [Its hard to imagine that CEOs will catch onto this until Fortune 500 gets a new breed of CEOs.. the NexGen, so to speak] Personally, I think its the right thing, for Sun's marketplace for JS to do this. I'm somewhat less clear it would have the same effectiveness in several other companies or industries. The other comment is: its probably easier for a CEO to spook than it is to influence positively. Notice JS's Web2.0 comment (we're the dot in ..) which was perhaps meant to be relatively light-hearted but it turned off a lot of people. I remember that Scott had the same strange effect in 1988 (when I joined Sun) when he honestly, but somewhat disconcertingly, told a reporter that he was blown away that Sun was a billion-dollar company when they expected Sun's business model to target a $100M segment. This kind of frankness is likely to be a turnoff in this great communication era. Along with power comes responsibility ... to connect, to be in-sync and to lead.

Posted by Vijay Tatkar on August 03, 2006 at 10:02 AM PDT #

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