Leadership is about Influence

Red Weathered Influence Stamp Circle and Stars

This is a post by Chris Shilling. He writes at Serve and Lead, you can connect with him on Twitter and Facebook. Make sure to check out his site and connect with him on social media.


We hear these phrases repeated in books, lectures, articles, and almost anywhere that leadership is discussed.

I have even been known to repeat them myself on occasion.

They are almost universally accepted without question and rarely ever challenged. But is leadership really about influence? Is influence really the essence of leadership?

Why Do We Lead?

There is often a disconnect between potential leaders and the people they aspire to lead because of the mindset each has at the beginning of their relationship. Specifically they each are primarily concerned about themselves and their needs:

  • The potential leader is thinking about how they can get (or influence) the other person or people to do what they want.
  • The potential follower is thinking about what is in it for them or why they should care about the potential leader and their goals.

This Thinking Creates A Roadblock to Leadership.

When we look at leadership in that context it is easy to see that a true leadership relationship cannot be formed. Therefore, it is the potential leader’s responsibility to break this paradigm and start, not by thinking about themselves and their needs or desires, but by thinking about the other person or people first.

The potential leader should genuinely get to know the potential followers and concern themselves with what they want and how they feel. This will take active communication where the potential leader fully listens with the intent to understand. This process cannot be forced or disingenuous.

When the potential leader is able to do this effectively they will learn a great deal about others and who they are as people, what dreams and goals they have, and what internal forces motivate them. This information is the key to learning how you can help them and in what ways you can be a positive resource for them.

The amazing thing is when we start with this premise we are able to develop a relationship of which influence will be a byproduct of.

Influence is a Result

Influence is really a result of the relationship that is built through caring and service (leadership).

People do not follow a leader because he or she has influence; the leader has influence because the people have chosen to follow them.

When we look at influence as a replacement for the serving and caring relationship of leadership, instead of the result of that relationship, we can create a dangerous situation.

How Do You Define Influence?

If you believe that leadership is influence then you may realize that there are many ways to achieve influence, and they are not all positive.

If I employ coercion I may be able to influence a person to provide me with a desired outcome; however, I doubt that I will build any loyalty, which is another result that leadership can provide. So I may be practicing what I believe is leadership but really isolating and demotivating others.

How many people do you think are out there who think they are great leaders because they are able to “influence” others yet really they are just bullies or micro-managers?

This is the danger of only maintaining the “leadership is influence” view.

Influence Is Not A Bad Thing

Please do not mistake the premise of this article, influence is not bad, and it is something that all leaders strive for. To be able to influence someone else is a powerful and humbling gift. It is a power that people give to a leader because they trust and respect them. The trust and respect must be there first, or the influence is not a true result of leadership.

This is why influence is not leadership, or even the essence of it. When we take that narrow view of our leadership we open ourselves up to internal misunderstandings and potentially dangerous situations.

Do not aspire to lead so that you can obtain influence. Obtain influence because of the serving, caring, and inspiring leader you have chosen to be.

Question: Do you believe that influence is leadership or the result of leadership?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • I’m a believer in influence coming before leadership. No one is influential with an ‘influencee’ – someone to receive this information. You can’t be influential to an empty room, so in my opinion, you need the characteristics of an influencer before you’re in a position to demonstrate.

    • You make a great point. You definitely cannot influence an empty room. But you also need a foundation to gain your influence. I believe that foundation can be a leadership relationship.

  • Floyd

    I think the different types of leadership are as varied as personality types and then some, but I do agree that the leaders that have the heart of others and service in mind are the ones that go down in history as great people and leaders. History has proved you right.

    • Thank you for the positive feedback. Leadership can look different based on someone’s personality, but I think at the core it is always about the internal feelings of the leader and follower. How can you connect with and follow someone you do not think genuinely cares about you?

  • Great post Chris, very interesting.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post:) Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • Thank you. I appreciate it.

  • DS

    Interesting exploration of influence and leadership, liked your illustration.

    • Yes, I strongly believe in serveant leadership! Thank you for sharing!

  • Great post, Chris! Very meaty, very thought provoking, very useful.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post:) Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • This is a pretty interesting thought — and I’ve actually been thinking along the same lines myself lately. More specifically, there are two great examples of what I call “benevolently manipulative” leaders.

    –James Cook, who “tricked/influenced” his crew mates into eating saurkraut, and in doing so saved their lives from scurvy.

    –Frederick the Great, who “tricked/influenced/marketed” the potato plant so that it would become popular among the people. In doing so he saved the Prussian people from starvation.

    In these two cases I think the ends justified the means.

    I am going to write about this sometime soon.

    • Will be looking forward to that one, Ludvig.

    • Those are great examples Ludvig! Thank you for adding to the topic.

    • Wow. That is very thought provoking. I look forward to reading it!

  • Influence is not the same as leadership. I see influence as a tool for leadership. The way I see leadership is that it’s about looking to the horizon – seeing where you want things to go in the long-term and taking initiative and action to get there. It’s more about ideas and vision and being able to properly communicate that to people. Influence is just a way to get from point A to point B. Of course if you don’t properly know what point B is, all the influence in the world won’t make a difference.

    • Sorry for the late reply:)

      I totally agree with your thoughts. Love your statement: “I see influence as a tool for leadership.” Great points. Thank you for sharing your wisdom here.