FLYNN: A key to leadership is ability to influence

I’ve recently been focusing a lot in my consulting work on leadership in organizations -- leadership defined as the ability to define a destination, set a path in that direction and influence people to move the organization toward the specified end. One of the key elements of this definition, and one of the key elements of leadership, is the ability to influence.

We spend a lot of time talking about the ability to influence and the fact that influence is directly tied to the notion of power. When I ask if power is good or bad, the perception is mostly a negative one.

Power, in its simplest form, is a measure of influence. The more I have the ability to influence what you do, the more power I have over you. Power comes from many sources. The researchers typically identify five basic types of power: charisma, legitimate, expert, reward and coercive. Charisma is that personal impact some people have simply by being who they are. Think John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Legitimate power comes from the position. Think policemen and kings. Expert power comes from what you know. Think your computer repairman. Reward power comes from your ability to give people rewards for their behavior. Think the boss. And coercive power comes from the perceived ability to punish. Think Tony Soprano and the Godfather or the abusive spouse.

Each of us pulls our ability to influence others from all of these sources in one degree or another. The key is to understand which of your power sources gives you the most ability to influence those whose behavior you are trying to change. One image I use is the “power cup.” I ask folks to pretend you have one of those big Pyrex measuring cups. In it, you have a measure of influence -- how much power you have in certain situations. The trick is to think about what you can do to fill the power cup and what you do to pour out your power.

For example, we increase our ability to influence by managing our behavior in a way that creates respect from others. We fill our power cup through how we talk and how we dress. Conversely, I lose much of my ability to influence if I use bad grammar, pepper my conversation with “like” (my personal pet peeve) and dress inappropriately.

I’m working right now with a family business where the son of the owner comes in late, doesn’t know the business well and, in general, takes advantage of being “the heir apparent.” Each of these behaviors significantly pours out his power with employees, significantly diminishing his ability to lead the organization.

As a business leader, think about this image. Each of us has a power cup, a measure of our ability to influence others to do what we want done. Each of us does things on a daily basis to fill up that cup. We also do things that pour out our power. And as with many things, it is much easier to diminish our ability to influence than it is to increase our power. The trick is to think about how your actions as a manager either add to or deplete what’s in your cup. In the end, as a leader, your ability to influence depends on what the measure in your power cup shows.

Jan Flynn teaches at Georgia College’s business school.