Leadership: Control vs. Influence

Leadership is about influence not control. I am not the first person to make this observation, but it is worth repeating.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/evirgen, Image #3833593

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/evirgen

I often hear leaders, particularly younger ones, complaining about their lack of control in various situations. “If only the sales department reported to me, I could consistently hit my budget,” they lament. Or, “If the production department reported to me, I would not have run out of inventory!”

What they are really saying is, “If I could control these people, I could guarantee the results.” The truth is that control is an illusion. You can’t control anyone, even the people that report to you.

However, while you can’t control anyone (except perhaps yourself), you can influence nearly everyone. This is the essence of true leadership. By this definition, Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were great leaders. They had control of virtually no one, yet their influence changed the course of history.

Aspiring leaders would do well to stop focusing on control and figure out how to expand their influence. Here are four ways you can become a person of influence, no matter where you are in the organization:

  1. Focus on yourself. As Gandhi famously said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Or as Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, “Save yourself, and you will save a thousand.” Modeling is the most powerful form of teaching known to man. If you aren’t “walking your talk,” you dramatically lessen your influence. People have a hard time following leaders who say one thing and do another.
  2. Take the initiative. Whiners are passive. They sit back and complain. They focus on what others should have done rather than what they themselves could have done. Real leaders don’t have time to play the blame-game. Instead, they look for opportunities to take initiative and take action. There is always something you could be doing to influence the outcome.
  3. Cast the vision. Oftentimes people don’t do what we want, because we have not invested the time to paint the vision. In my experience, people want a challenge. They want to do something significant. They are eager to help. But no one has given them a compelling vision of a new reality. If you consider yourself a leader, this is your job.
  4. Appreciate the effort. At the end of the day, everyone is a volunteer. Yes, even the people who report to you. They have more options than you think. If you don’t appreciate them, someone else will. People want to give their best effort to those who notice. Time and time again, I have witnessed the power of a simple “thank you.” If this is true for those who report to you, it is even more true of those who don’t.

Yes, it would be nice if the whole world stood ready to do our bidding. But for most of us, tyranny is not an option. If we are going to make a difference, we are going to have to sharpen our leadership skills and get better at wielding our influence. Everyday is an opportunity to get better at this important skill.

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  • http://oakgrovemedia.typepad.com Jay Kelly

    Great stuff. I was just lamenting (read: whining) about my lack of control in a certain business situation. But if I had intentionally cultivated influence earlier in the process, control would have been completely unnecessary. Great, great reminder, Michael!

  • http://josephbethcharlotte.blogspot.com/ Jamie Thurman

    It was good to see this. I know firsthand that the lack of simple appreciation can knock a good team down. We have all experienced a variety of management styles I am sure. I appreciate this model the best.

  • bryan ewbank

    Great article (as usual!).

    Minor typo in 2nd para:
    now reads: “If could control these people, …
    should say: “If [I] could control …”

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Bryan,

    Thanks for catching the typo. I have made the correction.

    Mike

  • John Young

    Mike if every boss could see the situation and the people in it this clearly we’d get a lot more done. Bottom line, a lot of people we both know just continue to get in their own way. BTW for those reading this, don’t overlook the great quotes on the left column of this blog.

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    Great blog. I’ve been working toward incorporating this thinking with the worship team at church. A team of complete volunteers, yet a team that needs leadership and structure.

    Rachel

  • Andrea

    I’m an “aspiring” (young) leader and I really appreciated your post.
    Could you recommend some books on the topic of leadership?
    Thank you so much!

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Andrea,

    I would recommend anything by John Maxwell, whom we publish. Developing the Leader Within You, Developing the Leaders Around You, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Becoming a Person of Influence, and The 360 Degree Leader are all great.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Les Dietzman

    Mike, this is a great reminder. Through 40 years of retailing I have found what you say to be so true. One of the blessings I had early in my life was having leadership positions in church, high school and college. When you are working with people in volunteer organizations, no one has to work for you. All you have is influence, and thanking and appreciating the people who do the work is essential in keeping a motivated organization. I have made many mistakes throughout my career, but my goal has always been to treat people as volunteers, even though they may report to me, and are getting paid by the company. You have given great advice to future leaders.
    Les

  • http://spudlets.wordpress.com Marc V

    Even with a simple thanks, it can give the message of “I appreciate what you do and want to continue to work with you”, rather than the assumed “You work for me – get it done” attitude. Your suggestions above are also helpful for parents, where as parents we can take (what appears to be) the easy way of tyranny.

    While the tyrannical approach is sometimes necessary, particularly for folks who don’t know the whole story or would not understand the reasoning behind a decision, if you have built up a positive influential relationship then the command will be taken by a receptive audience.

  • http://www.chipgallent.com/professional/leadership/leadership-is-not-about-control-its-about-influence/ Who Knows Anything?

    Leadership is Not About Control, Its About Influence

    No truer words have been spoken: Leadership: Control vs. Influence.
    What they are really saying is, “If I could control these people, I could guarantee the results.” The truth is that control is an illusion. You can’t control anyone, even the peo…

  • Ricknl

    Great post again. Stil reading your blog for two years. Wanted to make a compliment now, from The Netherlands.

    Thank you Michael!

  • http://www.jeffanop.com Jeff

    Great post. You are dead on with the way that people want the formal title to actually have influence. Leading by inspiring and respecting others will get you a long way. Listen and respond to people, and they will do the same in return.

  • http://c.huntwalker.com cDilla4Rilla

    Good post. I think also there needs to be a part about making the tough decisions that nobody else wants to make. That can catapult you to leadership status quickly.

    I myself, like Jay Kelly said earlier, was lamenting over a business situation in which I had more control. It boils down to leadership and having the backbone to take the initiative even when it will hurt people’s feelings temporarily or make things uncomfortable.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/wewenzein zein

    Mike,

    I have a slight different view about influence and leadership. While the four ways you suggest to develop leadership are perfect, the preceding paragraphs perhaps misleading for hasty readers that influencing other people is the key to leadership. And, we can influence other through many ways, positive or negative.
    Influence, in my view is the result of leadership, not the precedent of leadership.
    I see leadership as creating change, and the ways you suggest is reflecting that perfectly: create change first, then you can influence other, not vice versa.

    Thanks for the great article,
    Zein

  • Joshua

    In addition to John C. Maxwell books medtioned above, I recommend an amazing book in a fiction form: “The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership” by by James C. Hunter.

    The book help me to not understand but also change my mind: turned impossible missions into practical actions. I’ve already gave several copies of this book to some young leaders (or the leader-to-be).

    p.s. I only read the translated edition and I’ll get the English edition later this month.

  • http://baires.elsur.org Jeff

    So true. My observation has been that people who are so focused on control never accomplish much when they get in a leadership position because their focus all along had been on achieving control rather than really being a leader. Hence, by obtaining a top position they had accomplished their goals.

    Leadership doesn’t come from one’s position but from what one does.

  • Lisa

    If I truly believe in my own idea of how to accomplish a thing and begin steps toward that goal with calm confidence, people around me will see that I am going somewhere and will want to jump on board for desire to be a part of and fear of being left out of something magnificent.

  • http://www.latino-success.com Anthony Treas

    This month I spoke to a group of Latino high school students about Leadership. One of my main points was; you must be able to lead yourself before you can lead others. You must set a good example (influence) for others to follow. Great post!

  • http://www.latino-success.com Anthony Treas

    This month I spoke to a group of Latino high school students about Leadership. One of my main points was; you must be able to lead yourself before you can lead others. You must set a good example (influence) for others to follow. Great post!

  • Gordon

    Thanks Michael, I read a book once, can't remember the name at the moment, in which the author said something I have remembered to this day: "Control is zero sum game. If control is necessary in order to be happy, then you can't be happy if I am." I remind myself of that quote when I feel a urge to control. It is far more benefial to help others gain self control; attempts to control others are ultimately self-defeating. Even if I do gain control, it is control of a very small world full of unhappy people.

    -Best Wishes, Gordon

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/JayShepherd JayShepherd

      Michael,__Love this absolutly love it . To me true leadership is all about reaching people not to get what you want from them but to earn their respect thru my own actions and examples. There are so many great leaders that you have mentioned through out history and they all have one thing in common and that is the love and respect for all of those people who they have influenced. If you want to influence anyone even in your own personal life family and friends then it must start with you. We as people all speak the same universal truth though most of us are not in touch with it. Great leaders have found this truth and live by it every day. The human spirit knows this truth and when we find others who have found it and practice it then the walls can come down and we will begin to listen, trust, respect, yes and even be influenced by others. ____ Jay____

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  • http://www.johnhersey.com Leadership leadershi

    Great stuff. I was just lamenting (read: whining) about my lack of control in a certain business situation. But if I had intentionally cultivated influence earlier in the process, control would have been completely unnecessary.

  • M Najim_rahmani

    Great Great…

    i really need these info, So, thanks for everybody who shared these info with me…

    Developing the Leader Within You, Developing the
    Leaders Around You, What is a leader? Is it someone who tries to control
    everything they can, or someone who influences those around them?
    (You will FAIL leading by force)

    Thanks for taking the time to view this piece and your comments will be highly welcomed.Najim

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