What is the relationship between leadership and influence? Is leadership always influence and is influence always leadership? But selling is influence but not leadership?

To say that leadership always involves influence is like saying that all snow is white. It’s true but the inference doesn’t work the other way. That is, not all white things are snow. Similarly, although all leadership is influence, there are lots of types of influence that don’t count as leadership.

Here are a few examples:

  • Intimidating or forcing someone to do something.
  • Bribing someone to do your bidding.
  • Paying for things you want someone to do for you.
  • Teaching a student to behave better in a classroom.
  • Encouraging your children to eat their vegetables.

The last two examples are not leadership because they have nothing to do with a group striving to achieve a goal. Teaching students and encouraging children to eat vegetables is for their own interest, not for the good of a larger group. Similarly, salespeople may be very influential but their influence is self-interested. The salesperson and the customer do not constitute a group.

Formal Authority and Leadership Influence

Suppose you are the boss and you decide to ramp up production by 50%, requiring everyone to work faster and longer hours without overtime. Is this leadership? No, it may be influence but it is not leadership because the employees had no choice. To say that leadership is informal influence means that followers have a free choice to follow or not.

What are some prime examples of true leadership influence? One of the most familiar examples is Martin Luther King’s demonstrations against segregation on buses which led the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw this practice. King had no formal authority or other power to move the U.S. government. This is the real meaning of leadership.

  • Another example of genuine leadership influence was the Sony employee who influenced management to adopt his idea for PlayStation despite their feeling that Sony wasn’t into making toys.
  • Any time you convince your colleagues or your boss to adopt your idea, you have shown them leadership. Or, you might simply set a good example for your colleagues and, if they follow suit, you have shown leadership.
  • Market leading businesses influence their competitors to get their act together, another example of real leadership.
  • When executives make decisions that take their teams in new directions, they are taking managerial actions, NOT showing leadership because employees have no choice.
  • To count as leadership, influence must be informal so followers get on board of their own free will. Leadership is a group phenomenon aimed at serving unselfish purposes, to improve group effectiveness.

For this reason, even if your children willingly listen to your plea to eat their vegetables works, you haven’t shown leadership because you and your kids are not a group working toward a common goal. Competing companies are not a single group, strictly speaking, but they are after the same goal. You could call them a group in as much as they are part of a single market.

Informal leadership and Influence

We often distinguish between formal and informal leadership. The only difference between these concepts is that the informal leader takes the part of the group’s leader informally. But the concept of leadership is identical for both formal and informal leaders. Both are seen to be in charge of the group. The only difference is their power base. The formal leader has been given formal authority to govern the group while the informal leader is simply granted this role by the group itself. The informal leader has personal power – charisma, knowledge or some form of expertise that the group admires and needs.

It is vital to recognize that this conventional concept of informal leadership is not the same thing as saying that all leadership influence is informal. The conventional concept of leadership is all about being in a position at the head of the group. The claim made here is that real leadership is independent of position, as it was in the case of Martin Luther King. He was not an informal leader in the conventional sense – the Supreme Court didn’t recognize him as their informal leader. As another example, a technical geek might influence his peers to adopt a new piece of software. He has influenced them and his leadership is informal. However, this geek might be so disinclined to manage the group that they might not recognize him as their informal leader – someone who they would turn to for help in organizing their day to day work, someone they would look to for advice and the resolution of conflict. The geek’s informal leadership is a one-off act, not an ongoing role. That’s the difference.

This may be confusing but it is important to avoid saying so what, that what I’m saying is nothing new. We have long had a concept of informal leadership. By reformulating the very meaning of leadership, I am saying that the old distinction between formal and informal leadership is outdated. In my view, there really is no such thing as either informal or formal leadership in the conventional sense. There is really only formal and informal management because, as I see it, all leadership is informal where this term refers to willingly following someone’s lead NOT to informally taking charge of the group. The difference is subtle but important.


Leadership influence involves a group changing direction because of someone’s informal influence. Leadership is always disinterested because if you influence people to support you by appealing to their needs, you are effectively operating as a salesperson, not a leader. True leadership calls upon you to set aside your personal needs and do something for the good of your group. Think again of Martin Luther King. He was campaigning for justice, not to be elected U.S. president. His leadership entailed personal sacrifice in the interest of a higher cause.

For an updated, revised version of this article, see Leadership as Influence .