Leadership Is Influence

By ROSHAN THIRAN 

John Maxwell, a leadership guru, once said that “leadership is about influence. Nothing else”. Maxwell may not be entirely right but he is right that influencing is a big part of leadership.  Yet influencing others is one of the hardest things to do.

When my son was younger there was an incident where I was trying to get my son to eat his vegetables and was not winning the battle to get the greens into his mouth. I was just about to badger him into submission by yelling out that he would not be able to play football with me, when I recalled an important lesson on influencing. No one ever influences anyone by threats and commands. In fact, I know the No. 1 rule of influencing someone (especially your children) is to make the vegetables more appealing — but how? I decided to showcase to him that everyone else was eating them and enjoying it tremendously.

So, I just told my son that all his friends were eating their vegetables and he would be the only one not doing so. He somehow seemed happy to chomp on his greens. People love to follow the crowd. No matter how much you believe that you are not influenced by others, the truth is we are influenced by what others are doing and saying.

We tend to enjoy songs that others listen to – the best example being the Gangnam Style. We tend to dress like others. We are influenced all the time by all sorts of people and fads. This happen so often, we even tend to engage in unlawful acts when we see others do it.

A few years ago, the crime rate in a town started to rise. There were warnings and threats issued and strict laws enacted. There were big “Do Not Steal” posters but these didn’t reduce the crime rate. In fact, crime became worse in those areas where warnings were posted. Finally, there was a smart campaign that highlighted that the majority of people did not steal.

Surprisingly, the campaign worked. In London, a new campaign kicked off called the “99 percent”. The campaign had posters all over London stating that “99 percent of young Londoners DO NOT COMMIT serious violence”. And guess what happened? People were influence by these posters and crime started to decline.

Influence is critical for our success in life and in business. So, how do you influence?

There are numerous parts to influencing effectively. According to research done in Harvard by Nalini Ambady, it takes only six seconds for people to judge us. Ambady provided university students six seconds worth of footage (with no audio) of professors teaching and asked these students to rate the teachers. She kept the ratings and at the end of the semester, compared the six second ratings to the ratings from students who actually attend the full semester of classes of these professors.

She found that even with six seconds, the students evaluations of the professors were amazingly similar (and accurate) to the ratings of students who underwent a full semester of classes. These six seconds are our window of influence. Body language, words, your appearance, harnessing the power of story-telling and using various means of concessions are all part of the influencing arsenal.

But before we delve into how to influence, we need to understand what influence is.

What is influence?

At Leaderonomics, we define “Influence as the ability to move others into action.” Whenever we can change someone’s thought process and convince them to pursue a course of action, we have exercised influence, hence demonstrated leadership. The heart of strategic influencing is to gain willing cooperation instead of mere compliance.

It’s about getting others to follow us because they want to and not because they have to. Influencing moves work from being merely transactional to relational. The most effective way to influence others is first to build a relationship of trust.

On Sept 18, 1978, in Jonestown Guyana, 909 followers of the People’s Temple, led by cult-leader Jim Jones, died by cyanide poisoning in what is called the largest mass-suicide in modern history. How did Jones come to command such enormous influence over his followers’ thoughts and actions? How did over 700 adults willingly feed themselves and 200 of their children with poison at the request of their leader? Social psychologists identified the ability to build relational trust as a key factor for cult-leaders’ massive influence.

Jones was often described by his followers as someone who was loving and was deeply concerned about his followers’ well-being amidst his domineering and controlling personality. They loved him and trusted him completely. Here lies the powerful truth about influence: The level of influence you have on others is directly proportionate to the level of trust they have in you. And trust does not happen automatically. It is something you need to work on.

Influencing secrets

There are a number of other “secrets” to enable you to become better at influencing. Alex Pentland, a professor at MIT, conducted an experiment where he attached digital recording devices to business leaders to monitor their speech and body language over the course of a social dinner. A week later, he was able to predict with 87% accuracy how these leaders would fare in a business presentation which was rated by judges. He did this without listening to a word of the presentation. How did he do it?

A key part to influencing others, especially judges or interviewers, is not what you say but how you portray yourself. Are you confident, passionate, single-minded and committed to the cause you are presenting? The delivery of your message may be much more important than what is said.

Remember, Ambady’s earlier research showed us that people only need six seconds to make pretty an accurate judgment about you. So, how do you learn to ensure your body language and the signals it sends help you to influence better?

Smile more?

Surprisingly, many believe that smiling more helps you to influence better as you come across as warm and personable. Research, though, shows that smiling makes no difference to your ability to better influence (although the strength of a person’s smile has a positive effect on customer satisfaction in the service industry). Neither does body posture. Nor hand movement. So, what are factors that make a difference?

The most important body part for influencing is your eye. Research from the University of Toronto stipulates that “eye contact is magnetic.” Eye contact with each other signals attraction and creates a link that pulls people together. So, while trust may take time to build, having eye contact with people you interact with at work and socially is something that can be easily done.

Yet, many of us shy away from having conversation with each other and ensuring eye contact. So, start this new year by using your eyes to start influencing others.

Final thoughts

All of us are influencing people or are being influenced in some way or form every day of our lives. Building trust gives you the seed of influence. But more than that, your body language plays a big part in how people view and judge you. Learn to use your eye contact and learn to include stories into your presentations and discussions.

Everyone needs to influence every day. Learning to influence will only help you to become a better leader.