Leadership Is Not Influence

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Photo by mxruben, Available at www.morguefile.com

Is the essence of leadership really influence? It is hard to pick up an article or book about leadership and not see the author write about influence being the “core” or “essence” of leadership. I’ve been thinking about this lately and I am having more and more trouble thinking of leadership and influence in this way. In fact, I am developing a greater sense that looking at leadership as influence may actually be dangerous.

What I’ve come to realize is that leadership is not influence; influence is an effect of leadership. Influence is the result of leadership (either good or bad). Leadership comes from within. It comes from our being and produces changes in others’ thinking and behavior, thus influence. But influence is the effect, not the essence of leadership.

So how can it be dangerous to think of leadership as influence? If we take that definition to logical extremes, I see two dangerous situations:

  1. Misuse—Too strong a focus on influence can encourage a leader to abuse his power and position. If leadership is influence then a leader in a position of power has a greater propensity to misuse that power.
  2. Misinterpretation—If leadership is influence, then isn’t successful leadership measured at least partially by how many people’s thinking is shifted and how far that shift goes? The problem with this is that we then begin to discourage diversity of thought. Effective leadership should be about the ability to lead in the midst of diversity.

Focusing on the results of leadership draws attention to the wrong dimension—influence.

So, if not influence, what is the essence of leadership? I stated above that leadership comes from within. Accepting that, then the essence of leadership must also come from within. It must be a part of who the person is and must be virtually synonymous with that person’s character. After thinking about the many excellent leaders I have studied, interviewed, and befriended, the essence of leadership became very clear to me. It is authenticity.

The essence of leadership is authenticity, which I define as “consistency between a person’s inner and outer being.” The most effective leaders I know are those whose actions and talk are consistent with their character, their values, and their beliefs. They inspire confidence among followers, not because of what they have accomplished, but because they are transparent about who they are and even predictable in their execution of leadership.

In contrast, ineffective leaders are those who, lacking authenticity, are hard to trust because what they say and do is not necessarily consistent with or founded in any given set of values and beliefs. As the winds of organizational life shift, so too does their approach to leadership. They create confusion and even fear among followers.

Are you an authentic leader? You’re not sure? Start to find out by asking followers whom you know will be honest with you these three questions:

  1. Do I more often inspire confidence or confusion in the organization?
  2. Can you identify three of my values?
  3. How consistent is my leadership with those values?

The answers to those questions will give you some insight into the degree of authenticity in your leadership. If the feedback you get indicates trouble, ask yourself if you have been focusing too much on the effects of leadership, influence, and not enough on your own being and authenticity.

Leadership is not influence. Leadership is authenticity.

3 thoughts on “Leadership Is Not Influence

  1. Sorry, but this doesn’t ring true to me (yet). Authenticity certainly is an essential to effective (ethical) leadership, but are there not authentic people who are very authentic but not leaders? I invite you to persuade me, because I really want to understand this more.

    Thanks for putting the good stuff out there, sparking thought and discussion … and leadership!

  2. Chris,

    Great question (and challenge!). You stated, “are there not authentic people who are very authentic but not leaders?”

    What is your definition of leader? If a leader is someone who has a position of authority over others, you might be right (but I disagree with that definition).

    If, however, the definition of leadership is someone who influences the thoughts and behaviors of others, then anyone with authenticity also likely has the potential to influence others. Aren’t YOU influenced by authentic people, even if they have no authority over you?

    Your definition of leader and leadership is central to wrestling with this issue of one’s authenticity.

    • If my definition of leadership is “someone who influences the thoughts and behaviors of others,” then I’m back to the original definition that you seem to be disputing in your post. I am certainly influenced by authentic people, regardless of their position in the authority web, no doubt about it. But that would seem to nudge me toward defining leadership as influence. However, I, too, sense that there is more to the definition than that.

      Thanks, Scott, for your quick reply to my comment, and I’m already looking forward to this discussion (as time and inclination permits).

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