when is building influence necessary for leaders?

I was standing in front of a group of parents whom I didn't know too well, leading an informational meeting for high schoolers who were interested in going on a week-long canoe trip in the BWCA.  After I shared an enthusiastic and detailed vision for everything the week would entail, I confidently asked if there were any questions.  I couldn’t fathom there would be any as I had laid out all the details, now it was just time for the kids to sign up!

Well, the questions came and it became more and more obvious that the parents didn’t trust me.  I was dumbfounded.  To my knowledge, I had never been mistrusted in my life.  Not only that, but I had spent countless summers leading multi-day camping, canoeing and sailing trips.  My credentials were impeccable.  I was made to lead a trip like this!  But to the parents I was staring at, I was just some adult whom they didn’t really know that was eager to take their kids on a canoe trip that summer.  Thankfully, a longtime leader in the church, who had all the trust and influence in their worlds, was going with.  Otherwise, I don’t think we would have gone canoeing that summer.

One of the challenges of being a leader is that every time we are put into a new position, or even one new person is added to our team, we have to start from the beginning with building influence.  Why influence?  Well, in his book Leadership, Peter Northouse described the necessity of influence for leaders in this:  leadership is the process someone uses to influence a group of people to achieve a common goal.  When flipped on its head, in his book Leadership in Organizations, Gary Yukl offered that leaders are those whom people acknowledge as the focal leader regardless of their actual position or formal authority over the person.  Leadership is not one-sided; rather it is a dynamic relationship between leaders and followers.

The essence of leadership is found in the influence of the leader as they influence a group of people to do that which they would not otherwise do.  True influence stimulates action in order to implement a change.  In our churches, our hopes and prayer are that people do a lot of this – implementing transformational change in their lives, the lives of people around them, and throughout our communities.

And while some people blindly put their trust in others, the majority of people do not enable people to have influence in their lives without first trusting them.  An oversight I see leaders in churches make all the time is relying on their position or title to influence others.  Sincere and authentic influence is gained in one way:  spending time with people.  To have genuine influence in someone’s life is to know them, their wants and needs, their passions, their desires, their dreams, and goals.  When you can genuinely engage people’s hearts and minds, then they might give you the opportunity to influence them.  They might decide to volunteer and help you out. They might decide to engage in a spiritual discipline you’ve suggested.

When we do not rely on genuine influence to stimulate the actions of others, we are abusing our power as leaders, especially in the church.  And Jesus had much to say about the evil nature of spiritual abuse in His day.  Rather than bank on positional authority, Jesus so humbled Himself that He left heaven and inhabited earth for 33 years.  He could have called His disciples to follow Him whenever He wanted to, but Jesus waited until the time was right.  Leadership (servanthood) in the church is a massive responsibility.  To lead through anything other than authentic influence is arrogant and prideful.  There are no shortcuts.  Get to know the people whose lives you hope to impact for the Kingdom.