Why Influence in Leadership is Better

The role of the senior leader is very complex.  They must know how to effectively produce results amidst dynamic economic and political environments, successfully manage others in complex organizational structures, and in the case of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), there is also the added role of managing a board of directors.  First, when it comes to producing results for the organization senior leaders are usually confronted with two situations which require an adept ability at using authority and influence to effectively produce results:

  1. Leading an area of the business where parts of the deliverables include other leaders who are not direct reports

  2. Leading an area of the business with direct reports but who also in directly are responsible for the agendas of other senior leaders.

Secondly, in the case of a CEO, the responsibility of managing a board of directors comes with the added responsibility of meeting their information and relationship needs in order to firm up their support of the direction of the organization.  The challenge in either of these situations is ensuring that the relationships are in place and that the network that one is connected to is supportive of the goals and objectives and will support that agenda.  Although senior leaders may have the benefit of formal authority to compel other leaders and direct report managers to conform to their goals and objectives, this use of ‘might’ should not be a leader’s only source of power and authority within an organization. 

A growing body of research is showing that all leaders should begin to tap into their use of ‘influence’ within the organization to navigate and successfully manage in their organization.  While ‘might’ was considered to be the go-to approach for meeting organizational goals and objectives, evidence shows that leaders who use a command-and-control approach to compel conformity may achieve public compliance, but will likely lose the private commitment and support.  This is true regardless of whether the recipient is a peer, a direct report, or another stakeholder within the organization.  Consequently, when given the opportunity, these leaders and managers could undermine efforts of the domineering leader or simply chose to ignore the senior leader’s agenda and support the agendas of those leaders with whom they feel connected.  Therefore, it is this absence of true commitment that makes the command-and-control approach undesirable as it oftentimes will yield less optimal results.    


What is Influence?

Instead of a command-and-control approach, leaders can compel results from others by exerting influence.  Influence is the use of power to achieve results.  There are rational, social, and emotional approaches that are typically used to influence others and involve affecting others’ thoughts, behaviors, or how they make decisions.  In addition, senior leaders must focus on understanding how to leverage the formal and informal networks within their organizations.  According to the July-August 2013 Harvard Business Review article, The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents, the goal of this effort is to identify the central point of the network where there is “knowledge, information, opportunities, and personal support, and thus the ability to mobilize others.”


How to Establish Influence

In order to establish influence, leaders can still leverage their strength, knowledge and position while developing positive relationships with others.   The well-known ‘secret sauce’ of increased organizational effectiveness is trust.  Trust is important at every level of the organization including those in the most senior roles of the organization.  In order to exert influence, leaders must first represent themselves as a trustworthy leader.  Trust is the first character trait that a leader must demonstrate.  According to the July-August 2013 Harvard Business Review article, Connect, Then Lead, trust “increases information sharing, openness, fluidity, and cooperation.”  The establishment of trust with leaders and managers provides an avenue whereby commitment and engagement is offered for the benefit of the organizational effectiveness.    

The second and equally important step to establishing influence is to earn the respect of leaders and managers.  To earn respect, leaders must listen intentionally to others.  Listening intentionally requires that the leader is seeking to understand what is being said using both verbal as well as non-verbal cues to communicate that they are listening and that what is being said is important to them.  Earning respect also requires leaders to be authentic and keep commitments.  The combination of trust and respect is referred to as personal power and allows leaders to more easily exert influence over others. 


A Study of Influence

In a case study of two British financial institutions, researchers contrasted the approaches used by senior leaders and managers to understand the effect of influence approaches on decisions made within their organization.  This study revealed that there are three key skills that leaders and managers need to effectively influence others.

  1. Understand the business and demonstrate expertise with useful tools that help others do their job better.

  2. Ask others for their involvement when creating tools and reports that will be used across the organization (division, or group). Be sure that others sign-off on the usability and usefulness of the tools and reports.

  3. Insist on having a seat at the decision table. The senior leader who was most effective required that she attend the meetings where important decisions were made. This leader used this meeting to promote the agenda of her group, providing reports and tools being used by others to support her position.

In contrast, the research showed that the other financial institution was less effective at influencing the larger agenda of the organization because the leaders did not: 

  1. Demonstrate an understanding of the business and therefore, their expertise was viewed to be to comply with governmental regulations

  2. Translate their agenda to the larger agenda of the organization. The leaders in this group created reports that were not useful for the organization and were viewed with a high level of skepticism

  3. Work with others and failed to rally a network around their agenda

The lesson learned from both of these two very different organizations is that one can use their position and authority to demand certain things from others, but the key is create a network of support that will advocate for the agenda to others. 


A Final Consideration

 While research results show that using positive approaches to exert influence are best, particularly in our increasingly matrixed work environments, there are times when it is best to exert a command-and-control approach.  Similar to knowing which style of leadership to use for different situations (as referenced in Lack of Collaboration Causes Workplace Failures blog), it is important to know which style of influence or authority to use in different organizational climates.    



Battilana, J., & Casciaro, T. (2013, July-August). The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents. Havard Business Review, 63-68.

Cuddy, A. J., Kohut, M., & Neffinger, J. (2013, July-August). Connect, Then Lead. Harvard Business Review, 55-68.

Mikes, A., Hall, M., & Millo, Y. (2013, July-August). How Experts Gain Influence. Havard Business Review, 71-74.