What You Really Should Know About Influence

Newly in my position I was standing in front of a group of parents whom I didn't know very well yet. I was giving them all the details about a week-long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) for their high schoolers. After I shared an enthusiastic and detailed vision for everything the week would entail, I confidently asked if there were any questions. I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be any as I had laid out all the details and now it was simply time for their kids to sign up!

Well, the questions came pouring in and it soon became obvious that the parents didn’t trust me. I was dumbfounded. To my knowledge, I had never been mistrusted in my life. This was uncharted territory. 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 person whom they didn’t know that was eager to take their kids on a canoe trip in a remote canoe area that summer.  Thankfully, a longtime leader in the church, who had all the trust and influence in the world with those parents, was going with. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have gone on a canoe trip that summer.

One of the responsibilities of being a leader is that every time we are put into a new position, or even just one new person is added to our team, we have to start from the beginning with building influence and gaining their trust.

You might think this is over-stating it, but I assure you it isn’t. The reality is that the amount of influence we have with people and the degree to which they trust us is what ensures people will join us in anything, which is at the heart of leadership.

Leadership is not one-sided; rather it is a dynamic relationship between leaders and followers. When flipped on its head, in his book Leadership in Organizations, Gary Yukl offered that leaders are simply those whom people acknowledge as the focal leader regardless of their actual position or formal authority over the person.

The essence of leadership is found in the influence a person has to get a group of people to do that which they would not otherwise do (like send their kids on a canoe trip with me). It obviously can be easily abused, which I am sure many of us have experienced first-hand when well-meaning people miss the fact that even with the tile, true leadership has to be earned. I once worked with a guy who was newly appointed to oversee a project team (made up of directors in their specific areas) who thought simply setting up an hour-long coffee meeting to meet with each team member would be enough for them to trust him. It was evident to everyone but him that he relied heavily on his positional authority to get things done and had no real interest in actually leading the team well.

Contrast that with the leaders who genuinely know their team members personally, who know their strengths and weaknesses and work to their strengths, whose best interest is the success of the team, as well as the individuals on it. Now those are leaders who don’t even need titles to influence people, because they already have their trust.

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. This is an oversight by leaders who rely on their position or title to influence others. If you’ve ever been promoted, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Those people who used to be your peers are now your direct reports and everything has changed.

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 and decide to let you lead them.

When we don’t rely on genuine influence to catalyze teams, we often get our way by abusing our power as leaders. Leadership (servanthood) is a massive responsibility. To lead through anything other than authentic influence will lead to the demise of your team: they’ll leave or you’ll get moved. There are no shortcuts.