“Leadership” continues to be the topic of countless books, articles, seminars and the requisite DVD series. At a time when change has become a constant, the pursuit of leadership by organizations and individuals is perpetual. Ask people to define leadership and you will likely get definitions that run the gamut, witness the countless products noted earlier. Included in many definitions are the descriptors “power” and “influence”. Indeed, both play a role in leadership. However, clear distinctions should be drawn between power and influence as they relate to effective and enduring leadership.
Let’s take a look at those distinctions and characterize them with regard to effective and enduring leadership.
Power is positional. Influence is personal.
It is not unusual for people to ascribe power to positions of leadership. With the position of CEO, for example, comes a certain degree of power. That power has more to do with the position than with the person occupying it. In other words, it is conferred on the position. Influence on the other hand has more to do with the individual holding the position. It is conferred on a person by virtue of who they are, not what merely what they are.
Power is wielded. Influence is granted.
This distinction deals with how leaders use their position. Are they “dictatorial” in their approach, affecting outcomes by fiat? Or do they seek consensus and buy-in, seeking to influence the proper decision or direction from those they lead? Note the distinction: power is wielded by those in position. Influence is granted by those being led. Or put another way, power demands; influence commands.
Power pushes. Influence persuades.
The ability to persuade is a key characteristic of effective leaders. This goes to the whole “vision thing” by which successful leaders define and articulate the overarching mission of an organization and links strategies and tactics to fulfilling that vision. In other words, they make the case for what an organization is doing, why it is doing it, and what the outcome will be. This is part and parcel of bringing people along and persuading them that the course is right, has a purpose and will have a positive outcome for the organization, and by extension, for them.
Power is resented. Influence is respected.
Many years ago, I read where a utility took great pains to refer to their product as “energy” rather than “power.” The thought was the term energy had a more positive connotation than did “power.” It’s an interesting distinction that has stayed with me over time. It is much the same with “power” and “influence.” If one exerts the power of their position, they run the risk of being resented. Conversely, if one earns the respect of those they lead, they will be much better able to influence.
Power expires. Influence endures.
The corporate and cultural landscapes are littered with “leaders” who used their position to wield power until it expired through organizational succession, Father Time or a governing board. Their passing from the scene, if not enthusiastically cheered, is greeted with relief and anxious anticipation of their successor. Soon, they are but a fading memory and lament their loss of power, power held by virtue of their position. On the other hand, there are leaders whose passing from the scene is lamented by those they led. Yet they are leaders who continue to have influence. Why? Because they understood that the mark of true leader is not necessarily what they accomplish in the here and now, but by what those they influence accomplish beyond their term and time.
Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, is credited with having said “You can build a throne with bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long.” His is a sentiment applicable to the landscape of geopolitics, and it’s one applicable to building a legacy of leadership.
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