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What is Leadership?

If you’ve been in leadership circles for really any amount of time, you’ve probably heard that axiom that we often tell to emerging leaders: 

“Leadership is influence.”

But is that true? Are leadership and influence synonymous? 

Merriam Webster defines influence simply as “the capacity to change or affect someone or something.” In that respect, we all have influence. Imagine for a minute that your infant child kept you up all night (if you’re a new parent, you may not have to think hard!). They affected your rest. They changed your sleep pattern. They influenced you. But that’s not leadership. 

Of course, being able to influence people is an important part of leadership. But when we say “leadership IS influence”, it seems that there’s something missing. Influence doesn’t just grow on trees, and having an intention to influence isn’t enough. In other words, aiming isn’t hitting. There’s a missing piece.

Where does influence come from? 

In short, to lead we have to pair influence with authority. In fact, most definitions of authority bake influence into the equation. Someone with authority has “the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior”. 

Authority gets a bad wrap. In fact, you might have just winced a bit when you saw that word. But hang with me. But the truth is that authority is an important part of leadership. In fact, we need BOTH authority and influence to lead. It’s the marriage of authority and influence that produces great leadership. Let’s think for a moment about how the two interact. 

When we have authority, but no influence, our people experience coercion. This is what John Maxwell calls purely “positional” leadership. In a world with authority but no influence, you rely completely on your title or position to motivate people. The mantra of authority with no influence is “because I’m the boss”. It isn’t hard to see the problem here. When we purely rely on positions of authority, we experience resistance from our people. We’re exerting the energy to lead, but it’s aimed completely in the wrong direction. We get virtually no buy in because people don’t feel cared for. They feel used and manipulated. Authority on its own isn’t leadership. 

What if we have influence, but no authority?

Here, our people experience cooperation. They may do what a leader asks not because they have to, but because they want to. Sounds great, right? In a way, it is. That’s because influence is important. We need this kind of interpersonal influence. It’s important that we connect with the people that we lead in a way that they want to follow us. So what’s the issue here? To start, just wait until something they have to do comes along. Suddenly, wants take a backseat. That’s because so often influence without authority is simply intention. As we mentioned before, aiming isn’t hitting. When we lead, looking in the right direction simply isn’t enough. We must take action. And for this reason, influence on its own isn’t leadership either. 

With no influence and no authority, our people will experience complacency. Simply put, with neither, there’s no sign of leadership in sight.

We need authority and influence to work together in order to lead. 

When we lead with both authority and influence, our people experience commitment. This is good leadership: a world where people follow not just because they have to, or because they like us, but because they must. They respect our influence and authority so much that they can’t help but follow the leader. Committed followers are inspired. They are collaborative. They are glad. This is what great leadership looks like. 

As we develop emerging leaders and teach them about influence, perhaps we should add the word “almost” to our “leadership is influence” axiom. Influence is part of leadership, but it’s so much better than that. As we raise the next generation of leaders, let’s create a force that leads people who follow not because they have to, and not because they want to, but because they can’t help it. That’s irresistible leadership. 


Summary of Maxwell’s Five Levels of Leadership

George Washington University on the relationship between power and influence

The paper adapted paper from Cornell

December 15, 2023


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