What's the difference between leadership and influence?

During a recent tour of Europe, I was fortunate to interview more than a hundred different business leaders. I was very curious about the subject of leadership and the qualities that make the best type of leader, and what I learned from all those conversations is that effective leaders don’t always have to be in positions of authority but they do have to be in positions of influence.

In other words, influence can be found at any level of business. It doesn’t have to be driven from the top-down. You can find people who are very influential but not necessarily in positions of authority and, alternatively, you can find people in positions of authority whose influence is very low.

Knowing how to identify and utilise the influencers within your organisation is incredibly important if your company is going to be sustainable and have any kind of lasting impact on the world.

Let’s look at it this way. When there’s a new requirement for a car to have a certain type of feature an automotive company like General Motors or Ford will hire someone to take charge of it. In turn, that person will hire a team and they’ll engineer a product to meet the new requirement. But the designer of that new product will only have a tiny amount of influence on the outcome of the project because he/she is so far down the hard management chain. That can lead to big problems if the managers at the top of the chain can’t effectively lead (i.e. don’t have influence) because what happens if there’s a problem with the product six days, six months or six years after it is delivered?

When the designer is so far down the hard management chain they’re not allowed to use their influence because they’re trapped without the authority to take control of the issue. Meanwhile, the managers at the top of the chain are firefighting the issue and potentially creating more problems than they solve, when all they had to do is recognise the designer’s influence and give them responsibility for the outcome of the product.

Holding onto power and not giving the influencers in their organisation the ownership to influence is one of the biggest problems with a traditional authoritarian power structure, but a huge number of companies still resist doing things any other way. What they’re not appreciating is the world has changed and you can’t be an effective company if you maintain an autocratic top-down approach.

What we want to encourage is reciprocity, so that the designer of the new automotive feature is also involved in the aftersales department and can take care of any impact the feature has on the car and make the decisions about what happens to the feature further down the line. In other words, that they’re able to use their abilities and influence to take control of any situation which involves the product they’ve created because they’re the expert in that area.

Doing this means identifying the people who have influence within their area of expertise and empowering them with the tools and responsibility to make it happen. It’s a form of leadership that entirely circumvents the way traditional authority works but is vital to stimulating growth and making a business more sustainable.

When reciprocity becomes part of the culture of a company it means the company can lead with influence and be influential within its own sector because it recognises and empowers the Influencers within its own organisation. By doing that, it will also be understanding its sector with as much knowledge as possible because it’s embraced everybody’s area of expertise and allowed them to influence the decisions for themselves.

That’s why we believe reciprocity is so important. It’s bottom-up leadership but it comes from the perspective of influence.

The value of influence

Look at some of the world’s biggest companies and the influence they have on the sectors they’re involved in. It’s easy to see how their ability to influence has affected their success even though rival companies with less influence might be accomplishing equally as impressive things.

For example, there are several companies currently implementing electric car technology but when Tesla says something is good, people listen to them. Why? Because Tesla have influence and are perceived to be an environmentally focused company. The other manufacturers may be just as innovative and environmentally conscious as Tesla, but Tesla are the influencers in their sector and the thought leaders in their space so, for the wider audience, their opinion counts more than any other.

By the same token, several technology companies have already produced mobile phones containing multiple cameras, but it wasn’t until Samsung or Apple started producing phones with multiple cameras that people really started to take notice. Why? Because Samsung and Apple are the influencers in their sector and it doesn’t matter how good the technology, products and policies of those other tech companies might be, Samsung and Apple’s influence is much more powerful in the eyes of the media and the minds of the consumer.

So, if you’re a net zero energy company reducing your emissions and making great strides with your Sustainable Development Goals, but you don’t have the influence to convert other businesses and people towards your way of thinking, your impact will only be localised. Localised impact is a great contribution, but we must go beyond a contribution and on to a commitment in order to make significant change happen. We need global impact. We need companies to be flagbearers for what they do well, and that’s where the combination of Influence and Leadership becomes much more important.

And that all begins with changing your culture to embrace reciprocity.

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