It’s commonplace to say that ‘leadership is influence’; indeed some of the best-known authors use exactly that sentiment as their core definition for what it means to be a leader.
As I’ve written elsewhere (A Leader is… and Leader: the ideal human being?), while influence is one of the aspects of leading well, it’s not because that’s a core leadership function, but rather because influence is exerted by every excellent contributor within an organization, whether they have a leadership role/function or not. Excellent leaders and followers alike are to be people of influence.
Every participating group member sits at the junction of Influence Ave. Up, down, in, out, back, and forth—we are part of a web of interrelationship and interconnectedness which facilitates, and is sustained by, a multi-way flow of influence.
If we imagine being in some sort of middle-management role, such that we clearly have both subordinates and superiors that we are organizationally responsible to, then we have some influence outward toward both of those segments of the organization.
Looking down the org chart, we engage with a posture of servant leadership, providing services to enable our followers to complete their roles and tasks with excellence. As I’ve written elsewhere, that includes removing obstacles, getting access to resources, advocacy, and professional development.
But there is also the exertion of influence upward, care for our leaders by contributing to their development as well. That may be through concrete support (all leaders are ‘poor’ and in need of having gaps filled), offering perspective, and bestowing affirmation and appreciation.
At the same time, we are also in a position to receive influence, again, both upward and downward.
Just as we (hopefully) offer servant leadership to our subordinates, we can hope for receiving the same from our own leaders. But for this to be effective, we must maintain a posture of submission and allow ourselves to be influenced.
And, as we offer care to our own leaders, we might also receive care from our own subordinates, but this can only occur if we establish an environment of humility, a willingness to admit our needs and to accept support from those others might see as ‘beneath’ us.
Apart from these ‘vertical’ relationships, there is also a dynamic of horizontal influence. We have the opportunities both to give and receive influence among our peers as well, regardless of whether we have a role that includes any oversight component.
Outwardly, we can exert informal leadership (see Chapter 22) by serving our peers and fulfilling some leadership functions even without organizational responsibility or authority.
Furthermore, our participation with any group requires a significant element of adopting and adapting ourselves to the broader enterprise; in choosing association, we are choosing to take on values, methods, and other elements of the organization, being shaped and conforming ourselves to norms, structures, and expectations.
In a healthy organization, Influence Avenue is a busy junction; there is a dynamic back-and-forth across various layers of the hierarchy, with trickle-down and bubbling-up effects taking place simultaneously.
And there is a challenge for us: to maintain key postures of service, care, submission, and humility, to ensure that we are both reservoirs and receivers of influence, rather than roadblocks against it.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017) —
along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.
2 thoughts on “Avenues of Influence”
You need to flip the hierarchy to make that work. Servant leadership can never go from above – the term itself need you to be below, otherwise you are not a servant.
I disagree. Although conceptually, perhaps ‘servant’ indicates being below, practically & organizationally, servant leadership is a characteristic of someone ‘above’ on a usual org chart, and how they relate to those ‘below’ themselves. Being a servant leader is a posture that can be adopted in any relational context, but especially important when there is a defined responsibility/authority/oversight role. Jesus of Nazareth, a paradigmatic servant leader, is titled ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’–pretty much the top rung of any org chart.