It’s fairly commonly understood that there’s a critical difference between management and leadership. Management is largely about compliance and ‘regulating’ activities. In contrast, leadership is about demonstrating what good looks like, and inspiring people toward a common goal. However, all leadership styles are not created equal. Here, we’re focusing on just two: leading by authority and leading by influence. The difference between them is fundamental to successfully navigate the change that often comes with improvement – and positioning that change for sustainability.

A tale of two leadership styles

  • Leading by authority is ultimately about power. It’s considered to be the lowest level of leadership as it forces compliance and is unlikely to engender discretionary effort. In its basic form – and we recognise there’s much more that can be said on this topic – leading by authority is like management with a bigger stick or a heavier pen. As a result, it is generally limited to direct reports, those who are dependent on that leader, and indirect power due to politics.
  • Leading by influence is ultimately about relationships. It’s focused on building relationships with those around you such that they will behave or take action, without overt direction, in a way that aligns to your goals. Those influenced by the leader will generally have a positive outlook on their contribution and on the leader they are supporting. Rather than limiting our influence, as authority does, it spreads influence and allows us to harness the help and support of a much larger network of people.

We often observe that personnel who are new to management roles rely heavily on the authority of their new position. A recent, surprising example involved an experienced supervisor who had historically shown their understanding of leading by influence. They were appointed to a new role and, because they felt they hadn’t yet established effective relationships or demonstrated they could lead a winning team, defaulted to an authoritarian approach. It only took them a few weeks to see that wasn’t working before they returned to their past, proven, values-based relationship approach. In the reverse, a striking example involved an incumbent in a maintenance management role who was such a strong influence leader that their reputation preceded them. They had garnered such high levels of respect, that it was evident with workgroup members who hadn’t even met them in person.

Maxwell’s leadership model (below) is a common one for good reason. Most people will resist authority-based leadership but respond positively to leadership that stems from an effective relationship. Almost all want to be part of a winning team. From there, a strong reputation for leadership can be established based on the successful development of those within a leader’s sphere of influence. And the highest level is, in essence, the pinnacle of leading by influence.

Source: The John Maxwell Co

If you’re a high-performer, why bother

Developing relationships and building trust take time. While most people wouldn’t consciously cite those as reasons to bypass leading by influence, it would be easy to assume it’s less efficient. A high-performer known for ‘getting things done’ may not want to be held back by investing in relationships. However, this has three critical issues for workplaces:

  • The approach and methods used to achieve outcomes may not be aligned with workplace or community standards
  • The people around them can be left with negative feelings and future reluctance to engage in projects they are ‘leading’
  • It fails to harness the collective effort possible via true leading by influence.

Key benefits to the influence pathway

One of the most compelling aspects of leading by influence is that you don’t need to be a positional leader – ie you don’t need a senior place on an org chart to empower change. That, in turn, significantly expands an organisation’s capacity to improve, including as a result of increased workgroup autonomy, capability and stability. Furthermore, effective leadership is key to engaged workgroups. Study after study has shown that highly engaged organisations are more profitable.

At a personal level, leading by influence:

  • Improves your ability to tap into the discretionary effort of others
  • Increases the size of the group that you and your team can gain help and support from
  • Results in more positive and effective long-term relationships
  • Lowers individual effort while increasing workplace satisfaction
  • Supports the growth and development of those in your network
  • Encourages people to be part of your winning team.

The case for leading by influence is clear. Building the capability is equally clear, but it does require intention and practice. We’ll look at some practical strategies to help people build their influencing muscle in our next blog.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash