How to Use Your Influence as a Leader
When English politician John Dalberg-Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt,” he was painting with a broad brush. There are many types of power, and while some types are corrupting, others can bring out the best in people when leveraged effectively. That translates into improved morale and increased productivity.
The proper use of power is to the abuse of power what democracy is to autocracy. When a leader leverages their credibility and influence to invite others to participate in decision-making, the people on the ground feel ownership in the results, much like voters in a democracy. But when a leader governs like an autocrat, people usually only participate reluctantly, or not at all. Work still gets done in an organization ruled with an iron fist, but turnover is often high and sustainability, low.
There are many different types of power, but the four highlighted here represent the most common ways leaders bring them to the fore. Here’s what you need to know about each to exercise influence effectively.
Inspiring the desired behavior by wielding the stick—exercising control by dangling some form of punishment for non-compliance—is what coercive power looks like in practice. In some cases it can be extremely effective. For example, the strong perception of being caught and punished generally deters crime, which is an important component of the criminal justice system. However, this idea doesn’t translate in all settings. There is also the perception that those who leverage coercive power to implement their agendas aren’t leading so much as intimidating the populous. Using fear to complete a project might get you across the finish line, but don’t expect everyone to stick around to celebrate.
If you catch yourself saying things like, “If you don’t want this job, I’ll find someone else who does,” or using fear and intimidation to get the report submitted on time, remind yourself that there’s definitely a better way. Remember that the employee you berate today could be the colleague whose support you desperately need tomorrow. Sure, you should set expectations and enforce boundaries, but do so in a way that reinforces the greatest good.
When power is derived from a formal position within an organization’s hierarchy, it usually comes with the authority to make demands, and to expect others to be compliant. However, this power may also be conferred upon you by someone with even greater authority, which can be a little tricky. And, if you combine legitimate power with coercive power, you might be invited to tender your letter of resignation sooner or later, so tread lightly.
The people you lead will almost always give you more of themselves when you treat them with respect, so wield your legitimate power with a soft touch. One of the reasons that CEOs like In-N-Out Burger’s Lynsi Snyder and Southwest Airlines’ Gary Kelly are so beloved by their employees is because they uplift and appreciate them, while asking them to contribute their best efforts to the company. While titles often signal authority, they don’t always equal influence; be mindful of the difference.
Leaders who hold expert power are those with hard-earned knowledge and skill sets on which others recognize and rely. Their good judgment is battle-tested and as a result, it usually affords them an immodest amount of respect. Individuals who wield expert power are typically an organization’s thought leaders, which is an extension of their expert power. Their peers hardly begrudge them their authority and commonly defer to their insights because they generally know more than anyone else in the room. However, even the most lauded of experts can run the risk of losing credibility by being short on soft skills or falling victim to the ego, both of which can equally mar the perceived value of their contributions and authority.
One of the reasons that Dr. Howard Gardner, author of Multiple Intelligences has earned such resonance with the masses is because people recognize him as an expert in his field. But not only that, he also understands how the principles of human connection and rapport boost the value of his overall contributions and uses this knowledge to his advantage. Together, these attributes help him to leverage the next type of power on this list.
Every leader should aspire to hold referent power, which relies on interpersonal connections and other soft skills to unite people in a common mission. The well-loved coach who uses heartfelt words to rally his team to victory and reminds them to reach for grit, holds referent power. So, too, does the CEO who brings along a contingent of loyal supporters when they move to a new organization.
Leaders like Representative John Lewis held referent power in life, which is why in death, he and others like him have received such an outpouring of love. Widely known for his compelling interpersonal skills and rousing advocacy, it comes as no surprise that those inspired by his standout example were happy to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” and make important contributions to the American legacy of leadership.
Power can be a tool or a weapon of influence, depending on the person holding it. It’s incumbent on a leader to make sure to use it to build people up rather than to tear them down. Although it seems counterintuitive to some, nothing says effective leadership like the ability to invite others to share the reins, coupled with a genuine feeling of esprit de corps.
Read next: The 10 Laws of Cultivating Influence
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A leading authority on leadership development and organizational performance management, Karima Mariama-Arthur brings more than 25 years of comprehensive, blue chip experience in law, business and academia to every client engagement. A shrewd advisor to distinguished organizations from DC to Dubai, her expert insights help clients to successfully navigate today's ever-changing and competitive global business environment. Karima is the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook, Poised For Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As an extension of her work, she speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.
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