There have been hundreds of books, blogs, and articles written about how to gain influence as a leader over the years. The book that is generally regarded as the first leadership book ever written, The Art of War written by Sun Tzu well over 2000 years ago, was focused on this subject. Thousands of leadership books later, how to develop influence as a leader is still a topic that is worth studying.
When we think about developing influence as leaders, we all come to the idea with a different motives. What is it that we want to influence? Is it other people? Is it a strategy? Is it culture? Is it results? Are we trying to influence decisions? Is it our own careers or reputations we are trying to influence? It is safe to say that all of these motives fall into the category of ambition. We want to gain influence because we are ambitious, and that is usually a very good thing.
The Harvard Business Review published a study a few years ago focused on how managers choose subjects for professional development. The study, authored by Amy Cuddy, Mathew Kohut, and John Neffinger, showed that managers and leaders tend to choose training programs and literature that focused on technical competence over the “soft skills” of management and leadership. The managers in the study overwhelmingly believed that they would become better leaders by becoming better at certain skills. The great majority of the managers in the study were strongly focused on technical and business skills instead of personal traits like warmth, trust, understanding, communication skills, and likeability.
The authors point out that putting competence first actually undermines leadership influence. To quote the article:
…without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately – to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere and lasting way.
The study demonstrates that, in the pursuit of influence, most leaders are way too focused on techniques and short-term learning. They believe that they will grow their influence by adding certain technical or tactical skills. Developed leaders understand that there is much more to gaining, growing, and leveraging influence than just broadening your skill set. Let’s discuss two of them.
Growing Your Influence by Raising Your Hand
One of the best ways to grow your influence and importance in any organization is to take on projects. In every company, group, volunteer organization, club, committee, church, branch, or division there are a few people who have developed a reputation as dynamic volunteers. These people are usually no more experienced or skilled than their peers, but they have the spirit and confidence to raise their hand when they have an opportunity to be involved with something they think is important.
The result of this consistent involvement can be amazing. These people make connections all over their organizations and develop new and valuable skills. In addition, these adventurous volunteers end up on the top of everyone’s list when it comes time to start something new or organize a new team. Do you raise your hand when you see an opportunity to do or learn something new? Do you reach out to other groups or departments when you see a chance to make a positive impact? Most people actively avoid additional projects that are outside of their main job description. Don’t let that be you. Raise your hand and gain new skills, new perspectives, and a new reputation for involvement.
Growing Influence by Developing Protégés
This may be the most positive way to grow your influence in your organization. When a leader makes it their business to help other people grow and develop their skills, they are planting seeds that will sprout and grow in ways that leader could never have imagined. You have certain understandings and perspectives that you have learned with time and experience. These perspectives and specialties are your currency for positively influencing people who will need to know these things to improve in their roles.
The goal for every leader should be to:
1. Develop real skills that can be leveraged to improve people and teams.
2. Make sure that these skills are consistently demonstrated and taught to new and aspiring leaders so that the effects of these skills and perspectives are multiplied.
Developing protégés inside and outside of your area of responsibility has a tremendous ripple effect, for them and for you. Some highly influential leaders have dozens of protégés they have mentored through their careers. Most will never even use the words mentor or protégé to describe the amazing effect they are having with the people they get to work with, but the results are real and often permanent. If you want to grow your influence, focusing on growing the skills of other leaders is a great place to start.
Thermostats & Thermometers
We will end this topic with a metaphor that will help us all to really understand what influence really is. Think about the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. Most of your peers and most managers everywhere are thermometers. They can tell you what the temperature is. They understand the environment they are in and can communicate what they see and feel.
Truly influential leaders are thermostats. They set the temperature, and they can change the environment when it needs to be changed. These leaders are the ones who influence their organizations, day in and day out. They’re active and dynamic influencers of people and progress. It is as simple as this; be a thermostat, not a thermometer.