Shift from Authority to Influence for C-Level Success

This is the second of three posts on stepping up to success in a new executive role. Don’t miss the “Questions from the Coach” at the end!

In most organizations, C-level leaders are drivers of organizational change. Senior executives, having taken part in developing the strategies, then take the lead in describing where the company is headed. Their aim is to align everyone involved with the new direction and get things moving. One key factor in success at this level is the executive’s ability to leverage their influence instead of leaning only on the power of their position. Enforcing change with an authoritative approach might work, but only temporarily. I’m reminded of an old saying something like this: “those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.” Authority might work well in governance, but it doesn’t empower leadership.

To lead change, you’ll have to do it the hard way, laying aside the comfort of authority and taking hold of the challenge of influence. What is influence? It isn’t the same thing as manipulation or persuasion. Manipulation covertly pushes its own agenda. It’s the work of a puppeteer – someone who tries to control you through fear, guilt, etc. Persuasion, on the other hand, doesn’t push. It uses emotion to draw you in through compliments, smiles, and emotional appeals. Influence is different. It invites you alongside and changes you on the inside. It doesn’t push or pull – it inspires and empowers by example, by the modeling of authentic behavior. Influential leaders encourage their people to own the proposed changes. They answer questions, ask for feedback, disclose their own hopes and concerns, and show empathy for those impacted by the change. This form of leadership has a sort of magnetism – it is attractive because it seems so rare. It is also costly – the cost of influence is time. The effects are slow and cumulative, but influence works – and it alone gets lasting results.

There’s a story from the life of President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he served as General in the Second World War. The night before a battle, he chatted with a young GI who admitted how nervous he was. “Well,” said the General, “you and I are a good pair, because I’m nervous, too… Maybe if we just walk along together toward the river, we’ll be good for each other.” Eisenhower could have tried to shame the boy into bravery or convince him that everything would be alright. He chose instead to simply invite the boy to walk beside him. He influenced and inspired that soldier by being authentic and real. 

In the context of management, Peter Drucker encouraged something similar. He suggested that senior executives regularly take time to meet with workers and ask questions rather than give orders. Drucker’s list of questions looked like this: “What should we know about your work? What do you want to tell me regarding this organization? Where do you see opportunities that we do not exploit? Where do you see dangers to which we are still blind? What do you want to know from me about the organization?” What a difference a conversation like that could make! Employees who are invited to interact with senior leaders in this way will feel that they have a voice and are valued for what they see and think. When leaders invest their time asking questions and listening to their team, they’re not only increasing their knowledge, they’re also ramping up their influence.

Questions from the Coach:

  • How would those you lead describe your most common approach to leading change – influence, persuasion, or manipulation?
  • What could you do or say to be more authentic and “real” with your staff?
  • How would you respond if you asked some of Drucker’s questions but didn’t like an employee’s answers?

In my next post, I’ll focus on a third key transition: from command to collaboration – the ways an executive can get much more done with and through people who understand their purpose, care about the issues, and own the outcomes.

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