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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