Jul 05, 2023

The power of influence

Everyone wants to have influence but what does that actually mean? Do you want people to just do or do you want them to believe and act in a shared vision? In order for the latter to succeed, you need to own the power of influence, but are you willing to do the work to make this possible?

The ups and downs of the power of influence

Influence and power are often used interchangeably although they are subtly different. There’s also a fine line between ethical power and influence and unethical power and influence. We’ll look at the impact that ethical influence has on leaders and those around them. But first, let’s discuss the difference between power and influence. 

As the chapter on Power Basis Theory, taken from the book Social Motivation, summarizes, there are many definitions of power that overlap with influence. At one end of the scale, you have “control over others” and at the other end, you have the “ability to effect change in others.” Others have defined transformative power as enabling others to grow and develop. 

What motivates leaders to want power? For some, they need to feel they belong while being in charge. In this case, those leaders tend to leverage their position of authority. Positional power can be very intimidating to people such that they don’t want to question the leader. This usually doesn’t get them loyal followers and it often creates a culture of fear.  Fortunately, there is more than one source of power as detailed in this MindTools overview.

These positive sources of power are, as originally defined by social psychologists French and Raven, the following:

  • Legitimate power, also known as positional power
  • Referent power where people leverage their charisma and interpersonal skills to influence 
  • Expert power that draws on a person’s expertise in a particular area
  • Reward power that optimizes the ability to implement external motivators, usually financial 
  • Informational power that offers credibility and rational persuasion such that healthy negotiation can take place

A leader well-versed in the power of influence knows how to integrate all of the above approaches both ethically and compassionately with a human-centered approach. As such, people are motivated towards a shared vision and common goal. They then feel empowered to go above and beyond.

How can a leader leverage the power of influence?

  • Cultivate authenticity: People desire to work with and follow someone who comes across as themselves without playing any games. That means consistency in how they carry themselves while having the emotional intelligence to know how to flex their leadership style according to context and situation. 
  • Connect with emotions: While charisma helps, knowing how to use the power of influence comes with practice and training. Working with a leadership coach who can hold up a mirror and raise your self-awareness and emotional regulation are the building blocks of transformational leadership. 
  • Paint a vision: Anyone can come up with an attractive view of the future when talking to like-minded colleagues. The real social proof is when others from various walks of life and beliefs actually start believing in that vision. Leaders who do this have found the common point that connects their vision with anyone and everyone. It takes considerable emotional intelligence to do this well. 
  • Build relationships: As well as emotional intelligence, connecting with people to build trust and a certain “liking” also requires strong communication skills. A language coach, for instance, can show you the power behind the words leaders use and how they, in turn, produce the power of influence.

What power do you have?

Using the power of influence effectively means connecting and inspiring people such that they want to follow your vision and goals. The dynamics then shift from a one-sided push approach to a two-sided co-creation environment.

The power of co-creation is that everyone sees the benefits both for themselves and for the group. They are therefore energized to put in that extra effort which, by definition, improves productivity and engagement. 

Research shows that an effective leader does this through high emotional intelligence. Essentially, as this paper on leadership effectiveness describes, great leaders can read social situations, along with the subtle shifts in emotions that sometimes happen. With this insight, they can then influence and motivate others toward collective action. 

The paper goes on to explain that the power of influence comes from being collaborative, innovative and supportive of others, as well as having strong communication skills. In short, truly influential leadership doesn’t rely on persuasion or the lever of scarcity. 

Instead, such leaders bring an intricate blend of emotional regulation, self-awareness and personality traits. Most importantly, they support and transform others.  

Where does that leave you? And what influence tactics have you tried before? 

Just like good salesmanship mitigates people’s fears, so influential leadership reassures and sells a vision. Various tactics can be used, as listed in MindTools summary of influencers by leadership scholars Yukl and Tracey. Nevertheless, it’s the intention behind the tactic that makes the difference. 

For example, rapport building and generally talking to people to understand their viewpoints while looking for common ground is a positive. Such leaders co-create and rally people toward the greater good. 

On the other hand, using your network to bully people into doing things is clearly unethical. And yet, we see it in countless organizations disguised under positional power. 

Understanding the difference between power tactics and strategic influence:

Truly influential leaders hold a deeply empathic view of all their stakeholders in order to discover new ways of moving forwards. They can do this because they have shifted from focusing solely on what “I” need to what “we” need. As such, they implement the delicate balance of being both assertive and accommodative as in the following examples:

  • Ask versus impose: Sometimes leaders need to be assertive but there is still room to acknowledge and gather other viewpoints by asking questions. Transformative leaders Mandela and Gandhi never imposed – they used vision and compassion to influence others.
  • Let go of being right and encourage failures: Those who influence rather than impose tend to be curious about others and genuinely interested in learning about other views. This naturally creates psychological safety where people also support each other through setbacks. 
  • Remove the mask and be vulnerable: As mentioned, people want to follow authentic leaders who know how to be human. Most of us live in cultures where we are still rewarded for having all the answers and showing a perfect front. That’s where a leadership coach can step in. Working with a coach, either individually or in a group setting, gives leaders the support and learning they need to finally let go of that mask. 
  • Networking: Every leader should have their personal branding such that their stakeholders know them for their particular strengths. Then, the power of influence comes from knowing who their audience is and whether they need an emotional, factual or collaborative approach. 
  • The greater good: The famous book by Robert Cialdini on the Psychology of Persuasion describes 7 principles of persuasion that Cialdini discovered during his research on how to influence others. Of course, reciprocity, social pressure and having a connection, among others are key factors. Nevertheless, if you truly want to influence at the next level, strive to find something that goes beyond what you need to something everyone cares about. Or as Simon Sinek calls it “a just cause.” 

Cultivating the power of influence as a leader

Influence is part rapport building, part vision forming and part co-creation. It isn’t about getting things done your way but it’s about mobilizing teams towards the common good. Within that, the greatest challenge for many leaders is to let go of being right. 

Working with a leadership or language coach is a tried and tested approach to cultivating the traits needed to influence at a deeper level. Those traits, including emotional intelligence, allow leaders to move towards mutual influence where everyone learns and benefits equally. 

With this more facilitative approach, it’s no longer simply the power of influence that matters but whether we are making this world a better place together.


Coaching, Leadership, Skills-Based Coaching

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