As a leader, it’s natural to rely on authority. After all, it’s often easier to make decisions when you ultimately have the final say. Yet, leaders who take their skills to the next level are able to do so by learning to practice leading through influence.
Leading through influence is all about persuading people to act, even if you are not their direct supervisor. It is a valuable skill to have, especially in situations when taking on roles in large, complex, or “matrixed” organizations.
So, how is leading through influence different than leading with authority? The answer lies in the approach. Influential leaders build relationships, create incentives, and find common ground. It is leading people because they want to to follow you, not because they have to.
Building Effective Relationships
The most impactful way to influence people is through building genuine relationships. People are more likely to work with someone they know and can trust than a stranger. In other words, influential leaders will make lots of deposits into the “Bank of goodwill” before making withdrawals. This happens through listening and looking for ways to help others work to achieve their own goals.
Case Study: Martin Luther Kind Jr. was a Leader Without Authority
Martin Luther King, Jr. is an iconic figure in the history of leadership, particularly when it comes to leading without authority. King inspired and influenced others through his words, actions, and relationships. He brought people together to fight for a common cause, even though he did not have any formal authority over them.
One way that King led without authority was through his powerful speeches, which inspired and motivated people to take action. His “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is one of the most famous speeches in history. In it, King shared a vision that others easily understood. He painted a vivid picture of a future where people of all races would live in harmony. He called on Americans to work together to make that vision a reality.
King also used his relationships with other leaders to influence people and effect change. For example, he worked closely with President Lyndon B. Johnson to push for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. King’s relationship with President Johnson helped to build support for the bill among lawmakers and the public. King was able to influence the passage of the law, even though he had no direct authority to make it happen.
Finally, King led without authority by organizing peaceful protests and marches that brought attention to the injustices faced by African Americans. He and other civil rights leaders, including John Lewis, staged sit-ins, boycotts, and other nonviolent actions that disrupted the status quo and forced people to pay attention to their cause. By engaging others and refusing to resort to violence, King was able to win the hearts and minds of people across the country and around the world.
In all these examples, King demonstrated the power of leading through influence rather than authority. By building relationships, inspiring others, and finding common ground, he was able to effect change on a massive scale, despite not having any formal power or authority. His leadership style is still studied and emulated by people all over the world who aspire to make a positive difference in their communities and beyond.
Another way to influence people is by creating incentives for them to act. For example, let’s say you’re trying to get your team to adopt a new process. You could use your authority to force them to adopt the process, but that’s not likely to be effective in the long run. Instead, you could create incentives for them to adopt the process on their own. For instance, you could help them discover how the new process would benefit them. You could also give a bonus to whoever follows the new process most often. By creating these incentives, you make it easier for them to follow your lead.
Transparency is also a great way to create incentives. When you’re transparent about your decision-making process and the data you’re using to make your decisions, people are more likely to trust you and follow your lead. For example, if you’re a CEO trying to get your company to adopt a new sustainability initiative, making your sustainability data transparent and showing how it can benefit the company in the long run would make it easier for your employees to get on board.
A Member of Congress is a Leader Without Authority
I was fortunate to have the opportunity early in my life to intern in the United States House of Representatives in Washington, DC. Most members of Congress are leaders without authority. In the House, each member casts 1/435 votes (0.2% of the vote), but it takes at least a majority of members of both the House and the Senate to pass most pieces of legislation. Further, when the legislation is implemented, Congress has no voice, except for oversight of the Executive branch of government to implement the new law.
Before the time of polarization present in Congress today, I would frequently see members of Congress “Cross-the-aisle” to work with members of the opposite party. These members would argue vigorously on one vote and then vote together on the next vote. The best of the bunch could disagree without being disagreeable. We rarely think about taking lessons from politicians, but in leading through influence, most are fluent and talented in that process.
Leading through influence is a valuable skill for any leader to have. By building relationships, creating incentives, and finding common ground with the people you’re trying to persuade, you can achieve great things even without formal authority. Just remember to avoid the pitfalls, and always be sincere and transparent in your approach. With these skills, you can become a leader without authority that people will follow willingly.
Leading through influence, rather than authority, is a valuable skill for any leader and becomes more critical as leaders take on more responsibility. To lead through influence, leaders should focus on building relationships, creating incentives, and finding common ground with the people they are trying to persuade. It is important for leaders to avoid pitfalls and be botsincere and transparent in their approach.
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