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Leadership and influence are intricately connected to one another.

One way of understanding the relationship between leadership and influence is to consider individuals in your life who effectively demonstrate influence.

For example, when it is time to plan the family vacation, who conducts the background research, presents possible destinations, confirms the reservations, and oversees the itinerary for the trip? Is it the loudest family member, or perhaps the most organized family member who influences the vacation plans? In some families, it might be the individual who controls most of the resources who has the greatest influence on the vacation plans. In other cases, responsibility for planning the family vacation may be shared among family members or may rotate with different family members each year. Influence can take shape in many different forms.

Now consider the individuals in your friend group who persuade the group to take some collective action. For example, which of your friends is most likely to determine the weekend plans or choose the destination for lunch or dinner? When preparing for final exams, which friend is most likely to persuade you to prioritize studying—and which friend might be most likely to influence you to put aside the school work to make time for social obligations?

Finally, if we broaden this thought exercise, consider acts of social injustice. When someone is being bullied, hazed, or harassed, who intervenes, and in what ways do they intervene? Who speaks up for the most marginalized in your institution, workplace, or community, and in what ways do these individuals ensure all voices are heard? Who instigates change in an organization or in society more broadly, and how do they ignite change in a way that builds support and shared commitment from others?

Each of the above questions highlights the importance of influence in personal and professional contexts. As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, influence is “the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command.” Influence can be found in every part of our lives.

In thinking less about being a leader and more about demonstrating leadership, it is important to disentangle influence from positional leadership and to consider the ways in which all people, regardless of formal authority, may exercise social influence. As a process, a practice, and a way of being, according to Ralph Gigliotti, Brent Ruben, and Christine Goldthwaite, leadership as social influence occurs across all levels of an organization or society, can be formal or informal, and may be used for good or for evil. Table 1 identifies the different ways in which influence might take place.

Table 1: Forms of Influence

Direct—Leader focuses influence efforts on the specific subject of influence.

Indirect—Leader seeks to influence the subject by way of other individuals.

Overt—Leader’s efforts to influence are clearly seen.

Covert—Leader’s efforts to influence are hidden.

Conscious—Leader wants subjects to be aware of efforts to influence.

Unconscious—Leader wants subjects to be unaware they are being influenced.

Active—Leader is currently purposefully trying to influence others.

Passive—Leader is influencing others even without purposefully trying.

Individual—Influence is focused on a single person.

Group—Influence is focused on a group and utilizes group dynamics.

Source: Middlebrooks, A., Allen, S. J., McNutt, M. S., & Morrison, J. L. (2019). Discovering leadership: Designing your success. SAGE.

Building upon the earlier definition, Middlebrooks et al. (2019) describe influence within a leadership context as the process of moving individuals or groups to the desired mindset, position, behavior, or place.

As you explore further, you will see that there are two areas of focus in regard to influence: Influence Tactics and Creating Change.

The Topics related to Influence Tactics include four of the ways you might influence others around you. These tactics—Persuasion, Motivation, Inspiration, and Advocacy—describe ways to elevate your voice, amplify the voice of others, and guide others in pursuing a shared direction. As these sections highlight, influence is not limited to the most vocal individual in a group. Rather, these tactics can also be demonstrated by those who are most humble. As Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, noted, “A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

The Topics related to Creating Change include five strategies for effectively influencing others around a desired change. Through Transformational Leadership, Gaining a Shared Vision, Coalition Building, Enacting Change, and Handling Resistance to Change, individuals can influence others through careful, purposeful, and systematic approaches to engagement. These tactics are relevant for leading both small-scale and large-scale change efforts that can be disruptive, transformational, and boundary breaking.

To conclude, influence is fundamental to the work of leadership—regardless of the formal authority that one may have. It is important for individuals engaged in formal and informal leadership to better understand the dynamics of social influence and to consider specific strategies for influencing others and creating change in a variety of contexts.

As you consider your approach to influence in this Skill, take a moment to complete this inventory and explore some of your preferred or dominant influencing skills. The readings, resources, and strategies highlighted in this Skill will provide you with additional ways of thinking about influence in a variety of personal and professional contexts.

Further Reading

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), 7279.
Cuddy, A., Kohut, M., & Neffinger, J. (2013). Connect, then lead. Harvard Business Review, 91(7–8), 5461.
Gigliotti, R. A., Ruben, B. D., & Goldthwaite, C. (2017). Leadership: Communication and social influence in personal and professional contexts. Kendall Hunt.
French, J., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D.Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150167). Institute for Social Research.
Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 5967.
Middlebrooks, A., Allen, S. J., McNutt, M. S., & Morrison, J. L. (2019). Discovering leadership: Designing your success. SAGE.
Ruben, B. D., & Gigliotti, R. A. (2016). Leadership as social influence: An expanded view of leadership communication theory and practice. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 23(4), 467479.