Leadership is a funny thing. Many people want to be in leadership positions…until they’re in one. Once they get their wish, they may be stressed by the weight of their newfound responsibilities, or uncertain about how to get the most out of their teams.
The fallback for leaders in this situation (and many others) is to resort to brandishing their power and leading by authority. “I’m the boss. This is the plan. These are your marching orders. Any questions?”
While this approach can be semi-effective in the short term, it’s clearly not the most humane approach, and it will eventually turn even the most creative thinker on your team into the equivalent of a worker bee.
Impactful leaders are able to get the most out of their teams because they’ve mastered the art of leading by influence rather than leading by authority. Leading by influence is the most powerful way to lead because you’re tapping into your team’s intrinsic motivators to inspire action. I’ve found that there are 5 key actions to leading by influence that I continually work to apply.
Humility is such an important trait in a leader. It sets the example and the tone that we aren’t in it for the personal glory or the accolades. We’re here to work hard, work together, and solve problems. Too often, humility is confused for weakness and bombast is confused for strength. I’ve found the opposite to be true throughout my career. Humility is a sign of strength. Bombast is typically a sign of insecurity.
As a leader, humility is about putting your team in a position to succeed and giving them the credit when they do. That lesson was imparted to me early in my career by one of the most selfless leaders I’ve ever worked with. John Fowler was the CTO of the consulting company I was working with at the time and to this day is one of the most brilliant technologists I’ve ever worked with. I was just a few years out of college, but he saw something in me. When, in no small part due to John’s expertise, we landed an engagement with a major international CPG company, he tapped me to lead a team on which every member was at least 10 years my senior.
Three days before the engagement was set to kick off, he called me into his office and closed the door. He said, “David, there’s something about you that makes me think you’re up for a bigger role. You may not be comfortable with it, but I want you to lead this engagement. I think you’ll do a better job at it than I will.” As I tried to process what he was saying and pick my jaw off the ground, he passed along one of the most valuable leadership lessons I’ve ever received. “The only thing you need to know is that this is not about you. I don’t want you to get a big head and think of this as a stepping stone in your career. I’ll be on the team and I’m going to be here to support you with whatever you need, and that’s the exact same attitude you need to have for the team and the client. Make sure they’re successful and everything else will take care of itself.”
The second characteristic of leading by influence is compassion. We live in a world that talks a lot about empathy, and empathy is a good thing, but empathy is really about being able to feel what somebody else is feeling. It’s about being able to understand someone’s perspective even though you may not have lived their experiences before. I like compassion more because compassion isn’t just about feeling — it’s about doing. When you’re compassionate, you actually want to alleviate someone else’s pain. Compassion, in other words, is the point at which empathy turns into action.
Whenever you’re leading a team, while you want to understand the environment that you’re in and you want to empathize with the people that you’re working with, you also need to be able to take action based on what you glean. You need to be able to step back and say, “How can we use our collective knowledge, insights, and talents to relieve this pressure and do something about it?”
Highly effective leaders are masters at getting others to work well together and feed off of one another. They may not be the smartest people in the room, but they realize that good ideas can and do come from all corners of an organization. They also know that the best ideas come not from a single individual but from our ability to build upon one another’s ideas, or take two ideas and find the intersection between them.
If you want to improve your ability to facilitate collaboration, work on making sure you are asking the right questions, and lots of them. Asking probing questions does a few important things:
- Helps you understand and frame different perspectives
- Serves as a way to solicit many different ideas on how a problem could be approached, aka “divergent thinking” if we were talking in brainstorming lingo
- Ensures that everyone’s thoughts are heard, considered, and can be used as leaping off points by others
The last point is incredibly important in building a culture where you’re continually looking for the best solutions, you’re not looking to the highest-paid person to have all the answers or make all the decisions.
Any time you’re in a position of leadership, there will be moments where you have to act courageously. This means being bold and taking risks, yes, but it can also mean something as simple as having hard conversations and delivering information that people need to hear even if it’s uncomfortable.
That may mean, for example, telling a client that you’re seeing some warning signs for your relationship based on what you’re hearing from your team. That was the exact scenario I found myself in recently. Rather than getting upset and telling me all the many ways in which my team was falling short, the leader I was speaking with thanked me, then went on to sign a contract to work with our team for an extended period later that week.
Living with responsibility and taking ownership is part and parcel of any leadership role. Ownership isn’t always about being on the hook for delivering something in the future, however. It’s also about taking a clear-eyed look at the past and stepping up to take responsibility when something fails or doesn’t go according to plan.
When necessary, you have to be able to look others in the eye and say, “This one’s on me. I messed up, and I’ll be better next time.” It doesn’t matter what “this one” is. Showing by example that when mistakes (within reason) are made, we acknowledge them and then move on should send the message that perfection isn’t the goal. Striving for progress, learning from mistakes, and figuring out how to turn negatives into positives are all going to serve your organization far better than finger-pointing or deflecting blame when things go wrong. As I wrote about recently, Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink, is one of my favorite books on the craft of leadership.
Wrapping it Up: Leading by Influence in Action
One story from the annals of the NBA perfectly illustrates the difference in leading by influence vs. authority. In the 1991 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls led the LA Lakers 3 games to 1 and were looking to close out the series in Game 5. This was before Michael Jordan had come to be widely regarded as the GOAT. Yes, he was already a high-flying, high-scoring international superstar, but he hadn’t been able to singlehandedly will the Bulls to an NBA championship.
As a close game entered the 4th quarter, Bulls coach Phil Jackson asked Jordan in the team huddle, “Michael, who’s open?”
Without missing a beat and without looking at Jackson, Jordan answered, “Pax.” Pax was John Paxson, one of the Bulls’ 3-point specialists who was a bit player compared to Jordan.
“Exactly. Right.” Jackson said. “Get him the ball!” When it came down to crunch time, Jordan did just that. As the Lakers defense collapsed around Jordan, he repeatedly found a wide-open Paxson, who scored 10 points in the game’s final four minutes. Jordan and the Bulls won the first of what would eventually be 6 NBA titles.
The mastery to me is in how Jackson started with a question. He didn’t order Jordan to pass the ball to Paxson. On its face, that would have been a ridiculous request. Why, entering what would be the most consequential quarter of Jordan’s basketball career, would you tell one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game to feed the ball to a lesser player? As they may have surmised in the huddle, you would do that to accomplish something as a team that Jordan hadn’t been able to do by himself.
Embrace humility? Check. Show compassion? Absolutely. The unspoken statement in Jackson’s question: “Michael, we’ve seen that you can’t do this alone. Let your teammates help you.” Facilitate collaboration? Obviously. Act courageously? Jordan’s competitive drive is fierce and well-documented. To instruct Jordan to pass to Paxson took some steeliness from Jackson. Demonstrate ownership? While Jackson started with a question that allowed Jordan to demonstrate his basketball IQ, he finished with a direction, “Get him the ball!”
And that, in my opinion, was leading by influence personified.