Influence and leadership (update)

by | Mar 12, 2024 | Articles

5 min read

Learning about leadership

Throughout my personal and professional journey as a leader, I’ve sought wisdom from others—some I know personally and have worked with, others with influential public followings (and well-deserved ones at that). No sense having to learn all the leadership lessons on my own from my own failures and disappointments.

Three prominent voices have been extra helpful along the way: King Solomon (his book of Proverbs in the Bible is full of wisdom of all sorts, including regarding leadership and finances and relationships and beyond), Peter Drucker, and John Maxwell.

“Leadership is influence…”

That quote from John Maxwell rivetted my attention years ago, and it continues to instruct and challenge me to this day.1

Later in the same chapter on “The Law of Influence,” he explains further: “When it comes to identifying a real leader…don’t check his title. Check his influence. The proof of leadership is found in the followers.”2

And this rings true to me: the real leaders—the ones effective at motivating people to follow and at creating positive change—are those in the organization with influence.3

Another way to look at influence

And I think we can, while endorsing Maxwell’s view, also look more broadly at influence and make some additional observations about how it plays out in a leader’s life.

I began my own journey down this observing path by thinking about how others in the workplace influence me. Three different overlapping forms of influence have been significant in my life and work.

Positional influence

I completely agree with Maxwell that sitting in the leader seat does not necessarily make that person effective as a leader. Each of us can likely name various personal examples from our work careers of individuals in leadership positions who failed to lead effectively.

Yet, if I am working for someone, in the chain of command reporting up to that person, that person (effective leader or otherwise) most definitely does have an influence on me.

At minimum, the leadership role itself carries weight (given the responsibilities and authority assigned to whoever is in the role), and we usually accord that person (aka “boss”) some degree of deference and respect. Maybe not as much as we’d defer to and respect if we admired the boss and he or she led well; but, the role at a minimum deserves respect, so we usually respect that expectation.

Additionally, my boss has influence over me in more direct ways: setting expectations for my work; holding me accountable for performance; interacting with me; determining (or at least having some input into) my compensation and work assignments and career progression prospects. Et cetera.

Relational & reputational influence

But as I look around the organization, I see folks other than my direct boss who also influence me. These would include those wise and effective coworkers throughout the organization at all levels who get things done well and with style, who can communicate complex matters so they are easily understood, who know how to maneuver relational complexities. The people I seek out when I need some input, or creative thinking, or feedback on how I’m doing with something I’m trying to grow in.

These folks (and you can also probably think of some in your organization) have influence on me because of my relationship with them. Or, for those I don’t know as well personally, because I admire them and their performance, just from a bit farther organizational distance. Their reputation for effectiveness influences me, sets an example for me. (This type of positive influence is what Maxwell focused on in the quotes above.)

Incidental & existential influence

Bear with me for a moment on this form of influence, please. I acknowledge the label is clunky.4

This is the category for the influence others in the workplace have on me merely because we exist together in a shared time and space (yes, even our virtual spaces). It’s the influence that is the byproduct of that shared work existence, that is incidental to us working together, that is not the parts of our work and working together that focus on performance and objectives and accomplishment.

This influence, by virtue of being incidental and rooted in our shared work existence, is generally passive, even inadvertent.

It encompasses attitudes, tones of voice, small and habitual actions, expressions on faces, moods. You know how experiencing the range of possibilities for each of those influences you. Sometimes with admiration. Sometimes with disgust or revulsion. And your coworkers are likely unaware of what they are doing, or of its influence on you.

Two quick examples: I worked for a CEO who, on the walk from the parking garage to his office in the bank, would regularly pause to pick up trash on the sidewalk or in the gutter. His attention to order and cleanliness—and especially his willingness to deal with the trash himself and not just call the facilities crew—set an example for me and for others who observed it. And this second example we have all likely experienced: folks who check in with the secretary to ask what mood the boss is in before deciding whether to come meet with her or him today or not.

Seemingly small things. Not at the core of all we are working on together. But very much the warp and woof of our shared work existence. And they influence us.

What’s the point?

This is the section I’d rather leave unaddressed, because it moves us (me!) from information to potential discomfort.

Yes, I am influenced by all three types of influence in the workplace, and often with some overlap amongst them: positional; relational/reputational; and incidental/existential.

And I have no direct control over what others are doing and how they influence me (both positively and negatively). But, and here’s where the topic gets convicting for me, I do have control over how I, as a positional leader, conduct myself so that my influence—of all three varieties—is wholesome, contributes to flourishing for others in my workplace, and advances the honorable objectives of the organization.

Am I handling the powers and responsibilities and perks of my position with integrity? Do my words and actions strengthen relationships with my coworkers? What is my reputation more broadly across the organization? Do those who know me from a distance respect me and how I conduct myself? Am I aware of the tone of my voice and my attitude and my expression—and how they (and other seemingly small things) speak volumes to folks around me?

I am an influence in my workplace. The important question is: what kind of influence am I?




After I posted the thoughts above, a reader recommended I check out a podcast that also addresses influence: “The Impact Fetish” interview with Andy Crouch on the Good Faith podcast hosted by Curtis Chang (4/1/2023). I highly recommend this podcast: it’s long (75 minutes) but it’s very, very insightful.

Highlight: Andy Crouch asserts that the all-too-common focus on impact means we overlook what I’d call “the more excellent way” of influence. And I very much like his formulas related to both:

            Impact = force / time

            Influence = (faithfulness + friendship) raised to the power of long time     

The accountant in me really likes the formulas as a way to express this. The leader and father and grandfather in me really likes the long-term, multigenerational focus.

(Thanks for pointing me to this resource, Lee.)

(March 2024)

No A.I was employed (or harmed) in the creation of this content.

© 2024, Six Arrows Consulting. All rights reserved.

1 John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, 13 (1998, 2007; Thomas Nelson). (The full quote: “Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.”
2 Maxwell, 16.
3 Maxwell uses both of these “(influencing people to follow” and “create[ing] positive change”) as shorthand for what constitutes leadership in this same chapter. Pages 13-14.
4 …and if you think of a better one, please let me know!