The ability to lead by influence is required in numerous work and social environments. It’s an essential behavioural skill for those who are leading transformational change. In fact, it’s required at some level by anyone who needs, or wants, to deliver an outcome or change through others who they do not necessarily have direct authority over.

Our last blog looked at the difference between leading by authority and leading by influence. This blog is focused on the skills to get there.

While leaders of all styles need skills such as strategic focus, the differentiator with leading by influence is relationships – understanding the importance of strong relationships and being willing to invest time and effort in them.

Key behaviours of influence leaders

Key traits or behaviours of someone who is excellent at leading by influence include:

  • Knowing how to communicate a compelling vision, rationale for objectives and ‘why’, rather than simply a ‘what’ or ‘how’, and continually linking ongoing work back to that why message
  • Demonstrating a principled, values-based approach to their own leadership – honesty, integrity, accountability etc – alongside role effectiveness and work ethic
  • Showing authenticity, humility and genuine care in the way they interact with those around them, including putting effort into building strong relationships with as many people as possible
  • Holding strong knowledge in the target area to be influenced, like change in the workplace or sports performance (ie you can’t fake your way through leading by influence or it undermines the points above)
  • Having effective communication skills combined with low self-orientation, including skills in aligning or linking people’s aspirations with company or project objectives to drive change, encouraging support and engagement by considering their ‘what’s in it for me?’

Key ways you can cultivate your capacity to influence

Leading by influence is a simple idea that gets tough in the execution – because it takes disciplined application. Here are some practical ways you can cultivate this capacity:

  • Give your own behaviour a critical health check. Does your behaviour around others reflect that you are competent and can be trusted at all times? How is your self-awareness and emotional regulation in difficult or stressful situations? When you approach your team, do you come from a caring, inspirational place or an anxiety-driven, nervous state?
  • Build strong relationships with those you most need to influence. In most cases, the relationship comes well before the specific project/initiative/change. The relationship is effectively permission to lead. Ensure your relationships with others are based on their personal interest and low self-orientation on your part. Practice thinking about the perspective others may have on your objectives.
  • Where possible, promote the success of the group you are influencing. Make other people part of a ‘winning team’ without promoting yourself. You’ll gain natural engagement and ownership because the people around you will feel the energy of success.
  • Look for and support development opportunities for others. Personal development and empowerment go hand-in-hand. If you can be the conduit – or even just the prompter – for someone’s continued development, they will quickly see that it’s not all about you. Doing this for those in your immediate circle is fairly obvious, but consider those in the wider group you seek to influence as well.

On a recent project, we identified a very effective influence leader. During discussions with them, we were not surprised to learn that their work history included selecting, developing and training a very successful team over an extended period of time. However, what made a key difference wasn’t just the way they interacted with, and led, their immediate team – it was how they related to those outside the team. This leader was dynamic yet modest and had established life-long relationships with people in past workgroups and from past projects. As they sought to influence change in their current role, we saw them draw on this broad network of relationships from all levels of the business – plant operators to executives – to drive progress. Just as importantly, they had maintained those relationships because it was the right thing to do, rather than only reconnecting when it suited them best.

In developing your influencing skills, it comes down to practice and cultivating behaviours to the point where they become habits. Importantly, leading by influence isn’t just about a means to enabling change – it’s a skill that’s an end in itself, supporting stronger networks and healthier relationships able to deliver success.

Photo by Mathias Jensen on Unsplash