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Five ways to be an influential leader

February 14, 2021
Borderless Leadership

Successful leaders are highly effective influencers. In fact, the ability to influence people—to motivate, energize, and direct them in the quest for strategic goals—is so integral to the definition of leadership as to be virtually synonymous with it.

Of course, the role of influence in leadership success isn’t much of a secret in and of itself. But how should leaders pursue and cultivate their ability to influence?

The various answers represent two schools of thought – thoroughly played out within leadership literature to-date. The first school sees the path to influence as transactional. In this view, which sociologist Max Weber first defined, influence stems from formal hierarchical authority and defined processes—step-by-step strategy cascades, performance metrics, accountability, and the like. The second school sees the path to influence as transformational. First proposed by James MacGregor Burns, in this view, influence stems from a leader’s ability to uplift and inspire people.

Let’s now explore both schools of thought.

Wielding power softly

Transactional leaders use their authority to drive adherence to well-defined organizational structures and processes. Transactional leaders often have strong opinions and aren’t shy about communicating them. Former Twitter vice president Bruce Daisley, who was responsible for Twitter operations in Europe, Middle East, and Africa, told Mills and Ridley in the Leader’s Secret Code, “I am very directly honest. If I say something, it is often not sugar-coated for good or for ill.” He admitted that this can be off-putting to some people, but he thinks that most people appreciate knowing where he stands and being able to depend on that knowledge.

The challenge identified in transactional leadership is maintaining a high level of control without becoming overbearing. The late Albert Dunlap, who served as CEO of Scott Paper and Sunbeam, not only didn’t meet this challenge, but revelled in that fact—titling his memoir, Mean Business. Dunlap earned the nickname “Chainsaw Al” for his abrasive approach to wielding authority and boosting the bottom line.

Unlike Dunlap, the most effective transactional leaders seek to avoid outright coercion and the blunt imposition of their wills on others. In 2008, when Howard Schultz concluded that Starbucks was no longer delivering a high-quality experience to its customers, he didn’t browbeat or fire people. Instead, in 2008, he reiterated the process discipline that drove the company’s growth for more than 30 years by closing every store in North America simultaneously for a barista retraining session.

Being the change

By contrast, transformational leaders influence people by encouraging and supporting them, and by inspiring them to go above and beyond the dictates of the job. This approach to influence is rooted in emotion, empathy, and empowerment. Transformational leaders work with their teams to define the desired change in the organization and then, motivate them to make the change a reality. For instance, as part of his effort to revive Starbucks, Schultz also brought all 11,000 store managers together for a week of discussions about the company’s values, problems, and future.

In this approach to influence, effective leaders act as role models and relationship builders. They inspire people to step-up their abilities and capabilities and bolster their confidence by example. This influential style requires more time than transactional leadership, because its effectiveness is determined by the degree of trust and loyalty these leaders can generate in others. Thus, transformational leadership is collaborative and conversational, and it requires listening and discussion. In addition to patience, transformational leaders are often liberally endowed with charm and charisma.

Embracing the duality of influence

To date, the literature of leadership has largely followed the lead of James MacGregor Burns in treating transactional and transformational leadership as dueling approaches. But research from Mills and Ridley found that neither of these leadership styles—transactional nor transformational—was the most effective influence builder. High-performance was most closely associated with leaders who sought influence by melding together the two styles.

This view is also supported by Marc Clapasson, an expert on the matter. He holds a wealth of leadership experience from working within companies such as Syz & co, Prime Capital, UBS, and now has a holding company called Lionstreet that explores how technology can disrupt the trade finance market place. His perspective concludes that the optimal path to making things happen through others is a dualistic approach, which challenges common census, and much of the leadership literature, but helps to explain why so many studies have produced conflicting findings – they’ve looked at the two schools as competing forces, rather than syngeneic.

So, if you want to build your influential power like Clapasson, think of transactional and transformational as two halves of a holistic approach. A leader following this dualism could take a collaborative approach to create strategy, deliver clear instructions and communicate the path that needs to be followed – step-by-step, in a professional and personal manner, and then serve as a guide and motivator for those charged with executing the strategy.

To prepare yourself to wield a blended approach throughout your career to influence, Clapasson suggests you do these five things:

1. Know the people you want to influence. Spend time getting to know your team and showing them that they can trust you and work with you. As Stephen Covey wrote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

2. Aim to be liked and respected by those you seek to influence. People want to be led by people they like, but that does not mean becoming everyone’s ‘best buddy.’ Instead, be a concerned, engaged leader who is connected to both the vision of the organization and wellbeing of its people.

3. Commit to the people you want to influence. If you are not committed to your team, why should they have any reason to follow you? Find ways to show others that you are committed to them on a group level and on an individual level.

4. Engender mutual commitment to help influence thrive. Commitment works both ways. In order to influence people, they team need to be committed to you, too. Have conversations with your team to discover what they’re truly committed to and help make sure everyone is on the same page.

5. Be strong, focused, and a good example to those you want to influence. When you set a good example, people will naturally want to follow you. Position yourself as a leader with a strong goal and the ability to meet that goal.

by Benjamin Laker


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