John C Maxwell once said, “Leadership is Influence”. It’s a very simple statement and one that has oft been repeated. It is also a statement that, while short on words, is long on implication, deep on meaning and wide on interpretation. So I thought I would have a look at it and maybe noodle around with it a bit… hopefully with you.
To be clear, Leadership through influence is not a topic that can be discussed or “put to bed” to anyone’s satisfaction through one blog post, or even a thousand. It is an ongoing leadership preoccupation to understand the role leaders play in guiding the thought processes and actions of others in a way that will support organizational goals. But, we have to start somewhere right?
If you are a new boss, you may, or may not have discovered by now that while people may do what you tell them to do, they are more likely to do it willingly, (and well), if you have done a good job of helping them believe it’s a good idea. That’s the influence factor.
I’m thinking though, that in order for influence to germinate and grow in a healthy way, the conditions have to be right. In my experience, right conditions are usually present when those who follow, experience their leader as competent, trustworthy and brave enough to be their advocate when circumstances warrant it. In short, it’s about earning credibility. You can read more on that topic here.
For now, let’s carry on and assume that conditions are right and the necessary credibility has been earned. What are some things you can actually do to increase the influence factor in your working environment? Here are a few suggestions to consider:
- Encourage conversation and debate
Influencing is not about having all of the answers or having things go our way every time. It’s about becoming known and engaging others in conversation about things that matter. In order to gain influence we must also at times be willing to be influenced and that means listening, sometimes debating and sometimes finding ways to see things from a variety of perspectives. When we become known for our ability to include others in decision-making we also earn their confidence.
- Be Consistent
The work environment is often in a state of flux. People will welcome your influence if your actions are consistent with your words
- Ask Simple Questions
Simple questions cause us to focus, re-focus or think more deeply about a topic under discussion. It usually contains few words but those words are powerful enough to make a noteworthy impact on the direction a conversation takes or the conclusions that come out of it.
For example, imagine a room of people gathered to talk about how best to reach and serve customers. The participants begin to talk about their marketing strategy ideas and become embroiled in a debate about the most effective “roll out” strategy, each participant becoming more and more wed to his or her own idea. In the excitement, the customer somehow is lost from the discussion. A simple question might go something like, “So, if you were the customer, how would this strategy serve you?”
- Learn when to intervene and when to back off.
Once, a leader asked me to take the lead at a business meeting. It was really a meeting that he needed to lead himself but because the subject matter was not one with which he was comfortable (and it was an area in which I was well practiced), he asked me to do it. He’s a very smart guy and I knew him to be fully capable of conducting this particular meeting and getting some good results. But, we began the meeting according to his wishes… with me as facilitator and he, as a participant.
About an hour into the meeting, I made an excuse, asked him to carry on without me and left the room. I went to the ladies room for a few minutes. I picked up a magazine for a few more and then I listened at the door of the meeting room to hear what was going on. Of course, he was doing a fine job of facilitating and I slipped back into the back of the room and took my place, as a participant. Admittedly, it was a bit of a gamble. But, sometimes influence requires a measure of risk.
The point is, leading through influence is often a subtle activity. It requires us to be aware enough of what people are capable of to sometimes leave the room and let them get on with it.
So, how do you influence others? What do you think it takes? How does it differ from manipulation? Or does it? What do you think?