By David Casullo, President

As featured on The Conference Board's Human Capital Exchange

Archimedes, the legendary Greek mathematician and scientist, once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the world.”

For leaders, that lever is influence.  Your technical knowledge, work ethic, and drive can take you far as an individual contributor.  But to move the world, you’ll need to be able to engage the hearts and minds of teams, rallying them around the mission.  As such, you need to become a student of the science of influence.

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For those of us who are passionate about leadership development, we have a responsibility to ensure that leaders know how to use that lever—and that we create an organizational environment that represents that  firm spot on which to stand.

Influence doesn’t just happen.  We have to make it happen.  To build a better leader, we first have to understand what obstacles can get in the way.  

First, there are obstacles that are outside of the leader.  They include:

  • Diverse Perspectives:  Leaders must influence a wide variety of others, differing significantly based on their generation, values, temperament, and goals.
  • Time: In the face of an unprecedented amount of business activity—particularly meetings and email—leaders must figure out where they should invest energy for maximum effect given the finite number of hours in a day.  They also must be the “signal amidst the noise”—making sure that they can get people to actually hear their messages in our “Age of Distraction.”
  • Distance: Today’s global leader typically has to connect with teams that work in multiple sites and time zones worldwide.   As such, there is a higher degree of difficulty when we need to influence others without being able to rely consistently on the gold standard of face-to-face communication.
  • Resistance: Influencing others often means that we have to change their mentality as well as behaviors, getting them to buy in to a different way.   

Secondly, there are obstacles that may exist within the leader.  Some examples would be:

  • History: To improve your ability to influence, you may need to change some cognitive and behavioral tendencies that are fairly ingrained in your personal history going back to childhood. Personally and professionally, you may have been rewarded for behaviors that have served you well so far… but that could be working against your ability to influence.
  • Awareness:  While most leaders have some awareness of their strengths and developmental themes related to influence, we often find that leaders may have “blind spots” that hinder their ability to influence.  Without hard evidence of how others perceive your ability to influence, you may not see the need for change.
  • Focus: Even if a leader is fortunate enough to get insight into their strengths and limitations as influencers, it’s hard to maintain focus on these areas in the face of the everyday pressures that make it difficult for leaders to experiment with new ways to leverage their strengths and work on their developmental themes.  At worst, these efforts can be like that New Year’s resolution to get more exercise: You may do well in January, but will you still be hitting the gym by March?
  • Self-efficacy:  Perhaps the greatest impediment to leaders we work with is their own lack of belief that they have the ability to affect their situation and reach their goals.

So what can we do to help leaders overcome these obstacles and earn an on-the-job Ph. D. in the science of influence?  Here are three keys:

  1. Assess your leaders’ ability to influence:  There is now a scientific approach to understanding how a leaders’ stakeholders perceive his or her ability to influence.  Getting multi-rater data on the many elements of executive presence and influence is a crucial first step.
  2. Analyze which facets of influence will be most essential for a given leader, given their situation.  Getting leaders to articulate their business imperatives, reflecting on what elements of influence will be most necessary to their success, is a great way to help leaders realize that influence is a must-have, differentiating skill.
  3. Show leaders how to leverage their strengths to address their developmental themes with influence.  We have found that all leaders have some great tools of influence in their toolbox… and they also have other areas that could be bolstered.  When a leader’s strengths are heartily acknowledged—and then put to use in addressing gap areas—the leader is much more likely to embrace the idea of change and view the mastery of influence as an attainable goal.

If we can create an organizational culture where it’s not only safe to work on influence but viewed as an admirable route to growth and mastery, then we’re creating that firm place where leaders can stand in order to gain leverage.

And when leaders develop a keen awareness of the facets of character, substance, and style that drive influence and business results, then they have built a lever that can move the world.




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