How to increase your influence and leadership

Some people have directly equated influence with leadership. John Maxwell for example: “Leadership is influence; nothing more, nothing less”. Does this mean that by learning how to influence people you will be improving your leadership skills?

Flying birds

Influence is the ability to show a genuine interest in another person, to earn a deep level of trust that opens them up to your thinking; and then for them to act on it not because they were told to but because they were persuaded that it is in their self interest (and in your mutual interest too).

Influence should never be manipulative, although unfortunately it can be.

Influence is not the same as telling someone to do something and they then conform simply to avoid repercussions. Such practices are found in formal command hierarchy structures such as the military or police.

Influence is the ability to create a shared understanding of what can be achieved and then allowing the other person to act because they truly are the best person and in the best position to accomplish the task.

Learning how to influence people is the most critical leadership skill in business, and in life in general. Spend time on understanding the nature of influence and you will be a long way towards developing your leadership skills.

I am sure that you can think of people who have strongly influenced you in your life. What distinguishes them from others? Perhaps they were good role models, perhaps they were very accomplished at what they did, perhaps they were successful. But probably at a deeper level, you know that if you spent an hour over coffee with this individual you would have common ground; a shared belief system and a shared perspective on what needed to be done. In other words, somehow this person has helped you find clarity and understanding of what could be achieved in the future and what you also need to do to move forward. You are open to his or her suggestions because you have built a foundation of trust and you understand that the person ultimately also has your interests at heart.

The people who influence you are the people who believe in you. Henry Drummond

Any behaviour that damages trust, or create doubt that your interests are being considered breaks down influence. Manipulative practices, self-centred talk, false sincerity, unfulfilled promises all destroy any hope that you will be able to influence and therefore lead another person towards a goal.

Sales people for example need to influence people. They have to walk a fine line between maintaining their credibility and persuading the other person to buy a product. The stereotype of a “sleazy salesperson” is often well deserved. We have all experienced bad sales people who believed  that you couldn’t detect their fake interest in you. Over time we grow wise to insincerity and any suggestion of underhand selling in a relationship causes us to raise our guard and block out their potential influence totally.

Instead of deceptive and manipulative practices, if a sales person can transparently convey why it is in your interests to purchase a product, what beneficial stake the sales person has in the deal; and why he or she can actually add value to you by introducing the product; then there is a chance that you might be influenced to buy.

In business everyone is a sales person,  you have to learn to sell ideas.

Leadership is not management

A lively discussion we had again and again when I was in corporate life was the difference between a manager and a leader. Leaders had influence, managers had positional authority. Leaders were able to show you why you were the best person to do a job; and why it mattered; managers told you what to do because they “know best” how to deploy resources. You developed a trust relationship with the leaders in the business; you did tasks for the managers.

Leaders had influence, managers had authority.

Leadership is earned, management is appointed.

Leaders had credibility and had earned your trust over time; managers had the job title and an affinity towards policies and procedures.

Both roles are important in any business; but in a situation where you need transformative change in the business you need strong leadership before you need strong managers.

How to grow your influence?

As a developing leader you need to be aware of your influence with others and ways of how to increase this. Here are 7 practical ways you can develop your influence in business relationships.

  1. People respond when you show sincere interest in them as individuals. There are dozens of practical ways you can achieve this; but they all boil down to one thing: actually show sincere interest in the person!
  2. Listen and reciprocate – don’t dominate a discussion with your thoughts and ideas – instead open up your own mind to first listen and then reciprocate your thoughts after understanding the others point.
  3. Be respectful of opinions – being disrespectful will instantly destroy any influence you might have developed, be very sensitive to unintended ways you might be showing disrespect.
  4. Focus on the big picture and the end goal – it is always OK to disagree on tactics provided the end goal is understood. Give and take is not a weakness, it is a sign of strength.
  5. Positive reinforcement – people value your acknowledgement more than you realise – it takes very little effort to acknowledge progress and the results can be profound.
  6. Hand over your idea – weak leaders cling to an idea by making it somehow “special” or “secret”. Good leaders with influence generously hand over their good ideas in a way that makes others believe it was theirs all along.
  7. Protect the other person in socially difficult situations – nothing earns loyalty more than standing up for your colleagues who find themselves in a publicly embarrassing situation.

Leadership and influence are so closely intertwined it is hard to talk of one without the other. Leadership is sometimes more nebulous and difficult to practically grasp; but influence is something more practical that can actually be learned. In other words, learn how to influence others and your leadership ability will develop as a consequence.