Lessons in Leadership: Five Tips on How to Lead by Influence

Until her death in 1996, my loving grandmother would often repeat the story about how I would try to command my older brother to finish his dinner.  “Brian!” she would mimic my firm, not-quite-so-deep but still very bossy five year-old voice.  “Eat your food!” she recalled me exclaiming.  Brian, more than three years my senior, would simply reply “You’re not my daddy” reminding me that there was only one alpha male in the Phillips household at that time.  Clearly, I was not in charge and had no business telling Brian what to do.  However, the point I was making was valid and, if executed, would lead to favorable results (we could go out and play!).  At the time I hadn’t yet learned the all-important notion of leading by influence.

In business, “You’re not my daddy” sounds eerily similar to “You’re not my boss.”  In my experience leading both large corporate divisions and smaller entrepreneurial teams, the need to lead by influence has been consistently more important – and effective – than leading by authority.  Fancy job titles may make your business card look impressive but rarely do they lead to the kind of followership required to drive sustained transformation.  Unless you’re in the military where the “Jump!” command is met with a “How high?” response, leading by influence is a critical skill all leaders should continually develop.  Below are a five tips that will make you a more influential leader:

  • Listen and learn: Leaders have ideas, leaders have vision and leaders sometimes think they have all the answers.  Remember also, like most people, leaders have two ears and one mouth, and they should be used proportionately.  You must listen first, you must collect data, you must assess and you must understand the climate and the culture before you can possibly know the answers.  Learn by listening to both what is said and what remains unsaid.  Learn to read between the lines.  Learn the history, collect the facts, observe the situation and get the backstories that help explain the current situation.  Then, and only then, can you truly appreciate the perspectives of the team and influence their thinking and behavior.  Develop a set of techniques that keep you well aware of the rumors, water cooler chatter, emotions and beliefs of your team and find ways to influence them positively.
  • Know your audience: How can you lead without knowing who you’re leading?  This seems simple but is often overlooked.  Many years ago, in my very first interview for a management positon, the interviewer bulleted five unique management styles and asked which one most closely reflected my own.  I was stumped.  Not because I didn’t know my style but because I couldn’t understand why I was being forced to choose only one.  Leaders must know their style but also be able to adapt to their audience as necessary.  Use your newly refined listening skills to gather as much information about your audience and leverage these insights when attempting to lead.
  • Be authentic: While adaptability is critical to success, leaders must be genuine in their approach and personal interactions.  The old saying “People don’t care what you know until they know you care” applies here.  No matter your approach, own it, be consistent and be authentic.  Your hidden agendas and diabolical plots are easier to detect than you think.  If you have the team’s success at the core of your intentions, it will show.  Telling people you are authentic is useless.  You must show them.  Be consistent, be fair, be upbeat & positive and be sure that your decisions and actions are data-driven, unemotional and well-aligned with the organization’s goals and objectives.
  • Lead with a vision: Far too often, leaders jump out in front and begin working without a goal or plan.  “Fire, Ready, Aim” is a recipe for failure…or worse!  If you don’t know where you’re headed, your team certainly won’t!  Creating a vision not only helps the team understand where your organization is headed, but it also serves as the pinnacle of your strategy map that will help you get there.  In addition to developing and regularly communicating where you’re headed, you must also articulate why.  Be sure to paint a picture that clearly illustrates your vision and where in this vision your team members fit.  If they don’t fit, they won’t commit.
  • Beg for feedback: In speeches to business and civic leaders, one on one executive coaching sessions and with my university students, I often remind the members of the audience that “leadership can be lonely.”  Indeed, leadership requires strong listening skills, undeniable authenticity and a unifying vision.  It also requires the courage to step forward when others, for many reasons, choose not to.  Seeking feedback will ensure that you stay connected to your team even as you press forward.  Strong leaders are dynamic and able to adjust their styles to meet the needs and preferences of their organizations.  Those needs change for many reasons, often quite frequently.  Your emotional intelligence and listening skills will help you but direct feedback from colleagues at all levels should guide your behavior and style as well.  Actively seek feedback from both formal and informal sources.  Executive coaches, supervisors, team members and trusted advisors can help reveal your blind spots and help you avoid potholes.

Had I known these tips at age five, perhaps Brian would have eaten his food.  Instead of enjoying the entertainment value of a bossy five year-old, Grandma should have taught me more about effective techniques to lead by influence.  If only she could see my children at the dinner table today.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Must be time for dinner now!

About the Author

J. Todd Phillips

J. Todd Phillips After nearly 20 successful years in Corporate America, J. Todd Phillips set out to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. In spring 2013, he founded Parson Partners, a diversified strategic business services and advisory firm. As CEO of Parson Partners, J .Todd is accountable for setting the vision and overall leadership of the firm. Through Parson, Phillips and his team partner with Fortune 500 companies, governmental agencies, hospitals & physician groups and small & midsized business throughout the US. Services include strategic planning and execution, business development, talent management and executive coaching. Phillips is often engaged as an interim executive – typically CEO, COO or Chief Marketing Officer – for mid-sized companies in need of specialized services.