The Paradox of Influence

I’ve written before about my definition of leadership, which is influencing people to take action. While the “taking action” portion may be the part that is most unique to me, the influence part is possibly the most misunderstood part. I don’t think anyone who has a basic understanding of leadership would disagree that your can’t lead without influence. The intriguing thing about influence is that it’s a bit paradoxical. There is a counter intuitive quality to influence that has a tendency to send us running in the wrong direction and developing in the wrong areas.

Influence suggest others. It suggest working with others and having effect on their decisions and actions. For those of you who have read my writing for some time now you know that I often like to use definitions to help bring clarity, but Webster really isn’t much help to us here. If you go look for influence in the dictionary you’ll find a handful of ambiguous definitions with words like “power”, “spiritual”, and “intangible”. It seems that influence is a bit misleading to even those mysterious dictionary writer dudes, whoever they are.

So what does it mean to truly influence someone, and further, how might we develop it? How do we become more influential, thus increasing our leadership capacity? I think defining what influence is with words may be difficult, but most of know what it looks like. We have all been influenced by something or someone. It drives our actions and moves our decisions without direct mandate. We choose to buy something because we where influenced by a celebrity who has it, we choose to work somewhere because we are influenced by the culture or the history around it. Influence isn’t management. We don’t buy a sweater because someone comes on TV and just says, “buy this”. We do it because we have observed someone else do it who we respect or admire in some way.

You see, when you begin to explore influence you realize that it’s about having effect on others, but that effect on others is a result of who we are. The paradox of influence is that, though it suggests a focus on others, it’s really all about us. It’s about who we are, what we stand for, what we do or even what we don’t do. We are influenced by people who are what we want to become or who at least are what we respect. So influence is really about “being influential” as opposed to “having effect on others”. In the end the paradox involved with influence is that we have effect on others by developing ourselves. It’s the Ghandi quote, “be the change you want to see”. Influence is about leading the way, taking the first step, and developing in yourself what you want to see in others. It’s about integrity, honestly, and empathy.

Becoming a better leader involves gaining greater influence over those you would lead. Gaining greater influence involves becoming the person that those you lead can respect, admire, and pursue. Become a developer of others by developing yourself.


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