August 28

Influence Versus Control

Influence is given to the leaders who choose not to lord their authority over others.

Have you worked with, or worse, worked for a “my way or the highway” leader? Try to remember their direct reports. Were they engaged, motivated, innovative, or strong performers? Studies would suggest they did not display any of those positive traits. Nobody wants to be told what to do all the time. But commanding is a common way for poor leaders to communicate. From my observation, there seem to be common traits many poor leaders share. The preeminent leadership research, assessment, and training firm Zenger Folkman have a database of over 50,000 leaders and their data shows about 33% of all leaders are “poor” in terms of overall effectiveness.

When a leader resorts to telling and directing people, it is often for many reasons, and usually, it is a combination of things. From my experience as an executive coach it seems to fall into these areas:

  • It’s all the only way they know how to communicate (i.e. habit)
  • They don’t know how to use an ‘ask’ approach to guide people
  • They don’t want to give up positional power
  • It seems faster (I’m too busy. . .)
  • Are afraid (of failure) to use a different approach
  • Do not trust others to make decisions or solve problems
  • Have a low amount of empathy and ego-centric
  • Love their own ideas and/or don’t value ideas from others
  • Believe they know the single best way to do things

What’s the opposite of ‘direct & control’? Influence.

Humble leaders with a great deal of influence are more effective leaders than those who direct. In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins and his research team clearly determined why this is so valuable to great companies. Of the 1,435 companies they studied extensively, only eleven stood out over time. “In those eleven, all of them had Level 5 leadership in key positions, including the CEO, at the pivotal time of transition. Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside of themselves when things go well. At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.”

The concept of a Level 5 leader reminds me of ‘servant leadership‘, a model of leadership originally created by Robert Greenleaf. A ‘servant leader’ is someone who puts the needs of others before their own. They are often wonderfully effective and have a tremendous amount of influence. More will be forthcoming about Servant Leadership in an upcoming post.

Humans have a deep need to be trusted; in decision making, problem-solving, and creating results. When we are told what to do all of the time, we don’t feel trusted. Influence is minimized when the boss is perceived as not trusting others because of their directive approach. In the end, the way to have more ‘control’ is paradoxically, to stop trying to control others. Influence is given to the leaders who choose not to lord their authority over others. Ken Blanchard hits the point home; “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

Challenge Questions:

  • Look through emails, and replay conversations; do you tend to ‘tell’ or ‘ask’?
  • Do you know how much influence you have with your team?
  • Where would you begin to dramatically increase your influence (and become an extraordinary leader)?
  • Leadership coaching helps serious leaders answer these questions.

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