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Leadership as Influence

If leadership is an influence process then it can't be a role or type of person. Thinking through what leadership-as-influence means helps us see how all employees can show leadership regardless of the type of person they are or their role.

We normally think of a leader as a person in charge of a group. But if leadership is indeed a role, then influence must be only one of the ways that leaders behave. Such leaders sometimes influence us while also making decisions for us and doing other things to help the group succeed. Conversely, defining leadership as influence excludes making decisions for us because deciding is not a form of influence.

Leadership Defined

As an influence process, leadership can be defined as follows: showing the way for others either by example or by overtly advocating a better way.  Such a broad definition includes examples of leadership that we wouldn't normally consider:

  • The successful bottom-up promotion of new products or processes
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. having a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court when he campaigned against segregation on buses.
  • A green leader having a leadership impact on communities around the globe.
  • GE's  drive to be number one in its markets having a leadership impact on other companies.
  • Apple's leadership impact on competitors in music, computers and mobile telephony.
  • A CEO promoting a new vision.

Apple and GE showed leadership by example to other companies while Martin Luther King, the green leader, the CEO and the employee promoting a new product to management all showed leadership by explicitly advocating a better way.

Only the CEO is a person in charge of the group to which leadership is shown.

All of the others are outsiders relative to their target groups. Thus being in charge of a group is only a special case of leadership, not the paradigm for defining leadership in general.

Now, like all forms of  influence, one-off acts of leadership do not require being in a role. This means that the CEO can't be a leader merely by virtue of occupying a position or even by being effective in it. The CEO is an executive who only occasionally shows leadership, such as when a new vision is promoted. The CEO is not a leader but someone who shows leadership.

What Forms of Influence Count as Leadership?

If leadership is defined as an influence process, we need to understand what that means, how it works and what sorts of influence don't count as leadership. This is like defining a whale. It isn't enough to say that a whale is a mammal. To be precise, we need to say how it differs from other mammals like sea lions and dolphins. We need a way of ruling out animals that are not whales.

Similarly, we need a way to rule out kinds of influence that aren't leadership. Saying that leadership entails influence is like saying that snow entails coldness. But just as there are things other than snow that are cold, i.e. ice cubes, there are kinds of influence that aren't leadership.

Leadership as influenceIn the diagram, we can see that leadership is included in influence, which is represented by a larger circle to show that there are kinds of inflluence that don't count as leadership: coercion, bribery, TV ads, selling and coaching, to name a few. Thus the statement: "leadership is influence" implies that ALL leadership is a form of influence but it does NOT imply that ALL influence is leadership. For instance, a TV ad might influence you to order a pizza but that's not leadership.

Leadership and Selling

Both leading and selling are forms of influence but leaders aim to better the group while sales people are out to line their own pockets. We need to avoid confusing ends and means. They both use influence tactics but their ends are different. However, their tactics can differ too. A leader might stress benefits to the organization or society while the sales person simply stresses what's in it for you, the customer. Politicians who promise the electorate to give them all they want are really just buying votes. Surely, this isn't leadership. Leaders challenge us to think differently and to make sacrifices for the greater good, i.e. the environment, even if doing so is not in anyone's immediate self-interest. Unlike sales people, leaders are interested in promoting the greater good.

Leadership as a Group Property

We think of leadership as being a property of groups, like cohesiveness. Only a group can be cohesive.  To say that leadership is a group phenomenon means that it only occurs where people are working toward similar objectives or have similar aims. Such people are members of the same group but a group can be any collection of people working toward a common objective even if they are competing or don't even know each other. This can include:

  • Actual working groups like teams and organizations.
  • Markets made up of competing companies.
  • Competitive sports teams as in a football league.
  • Independent software developers working on new virus software.
  • People who value justice or fair treatment for others.

Martin Luther King appealed to the last group, individuals anywhere in the world, who valued justice. His speeches and demonstrations had a leadership impact on this group, one that he may not have had before Abraham Lincoln's day. A sports league is a group where the leading team leads by example. With this criterion, we can say that the following kinds of influence do not count as leadership:

  • Selling a product to a customer.
  • A mother influencing her children to eat their vegetables.
  • A teacher teaching students.
  • An executive coach providing developmental tips.

In these examples the two parties are not working together toward a common objective.  The sales person and customer have different objectives, one to make a profit and the other to get a good deal. In each case, the person doing the influencing has a different objective from the one being influenced.

No Autocratic Leadership

Influence means that people are free to do otherwise. Thus leadership can only be autocratic if it is a role. If people in charge of groups are leaders, they can make decisions autocratically. But if leadership is influence, then it can never be autocratic. Indeed, leadership-as-influence cannot be about making decisions at all. This means that all decisions for a group made by those in charge must be managerial actions, never leadership.

No Participative Leadership

Suppose you are in charge of a sales team that has dramatically exceeded its targets. Your boss tells you that the team can have a day off, either next Friday or the following Monday. You meet with your team to vote on which day to choose. Now, conventional leadership theory would call this participative or democratic leadership.

But, if leadership is influence and no one's choice of which day to vote for has been influenced, then no leadership is shown in this situation. As with being autocratic, leadership can only be participative if it is a role.  But with leadership-as-influence, we have only participative decision making when a vote is taken, not leadership. Managers can make decisions participatively, but when doing so, they only show leadership in those moments when they influence the outcome of the discussion. 

Suppose, you want your team's help with a difficult problem. Team members advocate their solution thus having a brief leadership impact on the rest of the team. The one who most strongly influences the final decision has the strongest leadership impact in this situation. The same individual might have no leadership impact on another topic. If you expressed no opinion but simply facilitated the discussion, then you managed the meeting without showing any leadership at all.

The same is true of all forms of influence. Sales people do not influence customers in a participative way. They could let customers play with a product in the hope that this would motivate them to buy it with no influence from the sales person. But if they do even a little persuading, this is a one-way impact, not a participative process.

All leadership is a one-way impact. As people approach equal involvement in making decisions, leadership approaches zero. The less influence anyone exerts, the less leadership is shown. 

Theories that portray leadership as a joint effort between leaders and followers assume that leadership is a role when, in reality, it is only shown by people in roles in some situations. But if leadership is influence, then "participative leadership" and "autocratic leadership" are oxymorons.

Examples of Leadership-as-Influence.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. had a leadership impact on the general population, various levels of government and the Supreme Court when he advocated the end of segregation on buses which led to its abolition by the Supreme Court. He didn't chair a legislative committee to work out a new policy. He spoke over the heads of legislators, directly to the general public. He challenged the status quo and had a one-way leadership impact on all who agreed with his stance. He showed leadership through pure influence, not by being in a position of even informal authority where he could call the shots with people reporting to him.
  2. The Sony employee who developed PlayStation had to work hard to convince Sony management to develop this product because they didn't see Sony making toys. He showed leadership bottom-up when he succeeded. But, clearly, this is pure influence as he was not in a leadership role, even informally, within the Sony senior management team. He challenged the status quo, just like Martin Luther King.

So What?

Well, framing leadership as an influence process and not as a role has huge implications. It means that people in charge of groups are executives, not leaders. When we talk about the qualities a "leader" must have, we are really talking about executives. Being in charge of people entails massive responsibilities, hence the need for integrity, emotional intelligence and other sterling character traits.

However, if leadership is simply a type of influence, then it can be shown by employees at the front lines if they can make a strong factual case for a better way even if they have poor emotional intelligence and lack other conventional leadership traits. Such leadership comes to an end once the target audience buys the proposed change in direction. Bottom-up leadership does not entail responsibility for implementation so, not being in charge of anyone, there is no need for conventional leadership traits like emotional intelligence, vision or charisma.

Leadership as Impact

Leadership occurs in groups as diverse as markets, sports leagues and independent software developers as well as in actual teams. When a green leader like Al Gore promotes environment friendly policies he could have a leadership impact on companies, countries, communities and public sector organizations around the world, most of which he may never have met, let alone be in charge of any of them.

When we think of leadership as a role, we get it mixed up with management because conventional leaders don't just promote a better way, they take charge of getting to the destination as well, which is why Kouzes and Posner say that all their thinking about leadership is based on the metaphor of a journey. But if leadership is really an influence process, a discrete impact, then it only sells the tickets for the journey. It does not manage implementation. This is what managers do.

This must be the case if we are to allow that leadership can be shown across groups or by outsiders like Al Gore and Martin Luther King. This kind of leadership can only influence, not implement. Where leadership is shown by example across competing groups in a market, the leading companies don't want their competitors to follow or implement anything.

When people in charge of groups both promote a new direction and help the group get there, they are switching hats from leadership to management.

Not all leadership even involves a journey anyway. Suppose you are in a meeting with your colleagues and you convince them NOT to take a course of action that they are really keen on. In this case you have had a discrete leadership impact that does not propose a destination or journey to be undertaken. In this instance, nothing happens so there is nothing to implement. Thus, clearly, leadership is possible without anyone taking a group on a trip.

Why it Matters

It is important to define leadership as influence and to abandon the whole idea of role-based leadership because businesses that compete through rapid innovation need all employees to champion new products and processes even if they don't have what it takes to be a role-based leader.

The emotional intelligence bandwagon actually excludes front-line innovators from leadership. Daniel Goleman said that there was another word for emotional intelligence and that was maturity. Thus the message is that anyone wanting to show leadership has to grow up first. How disengaging is that?

Of course, we need to upgrade management to take care of implementation and getting work done through people. We need a concept of management that is nurturing, facilitative, supportive and developmental, not the currently narrow concept we are saddled with today that portrays management as a controlling, mechanical function.

Summary: How Leadership Works

If leadership is an influence process, it works by persuading people to follow a new direction, to pursue a better way. It can be shown by example or by advocating a new direction. Such leadership can be shown by a hard-hitting factual appeal even if the person showing it is abrasive. All that matters is that prospective followers buy the idea. If they don't, we have a leadership attempt only.

But this is true of all forms of influence. A sales person might have the best sales pitch in the world but if a prospective buyer doesn't want the product, no sale happens. Conversely, another sales person might have very poor selling skills but if the customer wants the product bad enough, a sale will be made regardless. Similarly with leadership - it is always influence but the particular influencing skills required are totally situational.

Leadership works in groups of all types where people are pursuing common ends. Thus it has nothing to do with teaching, coaching or persuading a customer to buy something. Anyone can show leadership if others buy the proposed change in direction. The influencing skills required are totally situational because there is no universal formula that will appeal to every prospective follower.

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