In our professional life, and often in our personal life as well, leading by influence is often more important than leading by positional power alone. In fact, in my experience, I was (am) much more inclined to follow those I respect and for which I have an affinity, than those who have the perceived authoritarian ‘control’ over me or the position I hold. And, the individuals for whom I have the most respect have always been the ‘influential individuals’ – not the ones that lauded over me based on their title or perceived authoritarian prominence. Many of my clients work in large organizations, with matrix structures, and thus the need to lead through influence is paramount to getting things done. A few of my other clients work in direct sales or nonprofit arenas where leading through influence is literally the only ticket to success – there is no other way. So, what are a few tips for us to learn and integrate to improve our ability to lead through influence and to become an ‘influential individual’?
- Wash windows. This metaphor means we are willing to do the work we would expect or want others to do. Folks don’t like being told what to do by someone who is not willing to chip in and contribute. As Albert Schweitzer, the well-known and respected medical missionary, offers: ”Example is not the main thing in influencing others…..it is the only thing.” This creates a climate which models leadership…..and as my parents have always taught my sister and me: “Children learn what they live.” The same is true for adults. Just look at the popular television show, Undercover Boss …..this series is 100% focused on what the leader can learn through ‘washing windows’. We have to be ready, willing, and able to do the heavy lifting of whatever position we hold. This concept has always been the bedrock of strong leadership.
- Build real relationships. Business and life is 100% about relationships. The truth is that no one – NOONE – gets anywhere alone. It takes a team 100% of the time, and our job is to develop those around us. Leaders build those relationships through authentic care and interest for the other person. They become an ally and someone who has their backs – even when it may be politically difficult. They adopt the philosophy that if a project goes awry – they own it – they do not cast aspersions onto the team. And, if the project is successful, they give 100% of the credit to the team. These leaders, prove through their actions, their commitment to helping them be all they can be. A leader has the vision to see the potential leader in others; and makes the growth of that person a #1 objective. The descriptive term ‘servant leader’ is real; these individuals embrace the fact that acquiring, keeping, and growing people is his/her most important task…..not a means to an end. Being in service to others is their ‘true north’.
- Be approachable, accessible, and always ready to help AND learn. We need to be open and accessible at all times. If folks are not comfortable approaching us or scared to raise an issue to us – they are less likely to respect us. I have been working with a client who has embraced and adopted the antiquated ‘command and control’ approach to leadership. It has been detrimental to this organization and has built a culture of fear fed through gossip and ‘pointing fingers’. Our doors need to be open, our tempers patient, and our intentions 100% about growing the individuals on our team. Also, showing an openness to candid feedback and an eagerness to learn and grow will foster the ‘open door’ culture. As the adage from Tao Te Ching offers, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. When this happens, magic happens.
- Lose ‘title syndrome’. A great leader has total disregard for his/her title. He/she leads not due to their rank in the organization or his/her ‘positional power’; but, because of their ability to inspire, motivate, and build a collaborative effort with people to solve problems and get work done. How? Well, they become part of the solution in addressing the issue being faced. They become an advocate, ally, and team member of ‘equal status’. These individuals help to build capacity, strength, and desire within his/her team to do the best work they can…..actively….not just sitting back and waiting for ‘things to happen’. If individuals believe the leader has a hidden agenda or is only in it to further their own career – a lack of trust develops AND thus, a lack of spirit de corps builds.
- Consistency is king. How we show up – day in and day out – is the reputation (or brand) we create. As leaders, if we tell our team one thing, and do another, we will lose credibility. For example, if we want our employees to work late and we don’t work late – we send an incongruent message. If we tell someone what they tell us will remain confidential, then we have to keep our word. I know this point seems very basic; yet, in my experience these inconsistencies happen all the time. If we truly want to lead by influence, trust is the single most critical success factor; and this is built through consistency of our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Many of my clients have voiced concern that their intentions are indeed pure; yet, they are misunderstood and individuals have made false assumptions about them and their motives. I get this; as more than once in my career I have been completely misunderstood and have been the target of vicious and untrue accusations. I can offer a few suggestions if this is happening to you:
- Have the difficult conversation with the subject/s who have the wrong perception. Be humbly interested in learning what and how this opinion has developed – without defensiveness.
- Address the perceptions in this conversation, and then make a conscious effort to remedy the issue from that point forward.
- Have follow-up ‘touch points’ after a few months, to check progress and continue to shift approaches as appropriate.
- If the perception (and rumor mill) continues, at some point we have to let it go. (Not at all easy – and something, I personally am not very good at doing.) However, if we are true to ourselves and have purity of intention in how we lead and care for those in our organization, then we can sleep well at night….and at the end of the day – that is really all that matters.
In closing, know and embrace that great leaders share of themselves and what they have learned. They are vulnerable, real, and own their mistakes. They invest in their people – in time, money, and ‘sweat equity’. They are not afraid to ‘get dirty’, or to defend their people regardless of the consequences. This build loyalty, and thus the ability for the leader to lead through influence.
Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.
John C. Maxwell