Influence is the Leader's Long Game

We live in an impatient culture and have very little tolerance for anything that takes too long. There are food services that will deliver ready-to-cook meals so that we can skip the local market. We have coffee makers to avoid waiting for the water to boil on the stove. And we have automatic car washes to avoid having to get a bucket and a water hose to clean our cars.

I’m certainly not suggesting that convenience is a bad thing. I wear a watch that helps me stay on schedule. I use a tablet device to avoid having to transpose written notes into digital ones after the fact. And I prefer email to handwritten notes for everyday communication.

The things that matter take time to build and develop.

The problem is when convenience becomes an end itself. The goal shouldn’t be to avoid the work of a master craftsman. It’s to realize that the things in life that matter will take a lot longer to build and mature than we ever imagined. If you want a legacy that matters, it’s going to take a lifetime to build.

I remember watching an interview with a famous band at the time. This was a national program and clearly a big milestone for this group. They were talking about what it was like to finally make it to the big stage. You could see the excitement written all over their faces.

During the interview, a seemingly light-hearted question was asked.  The interviewer wanted to know what it felt like to be an overnight success. The band members smiled, looked at each other, and laughed. Finally, the lead singer said something that I’ll never forget. He explained that it took 20 years to become an overnight success.

That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. And by the look on the interviewer’s face, he wasn’t either. But it was so true. People only see leaders on the platform which tends to give the false impression that their influence just appeared one day out of thin air.

This is what I love about people who are fantastic at what they do. Whether it’s sports, academics, trade professionals, or executives. You know when someone has been working toward a goal for a very long time. You can tell it in the maturity of their ideas, the wisdom of their advice, and the actionable insights that bubble up from their reflections.

Influence is an art because people aren’t machines.

You can’t “marshall” your way to breakthrough results. You might be able to force a subordinate to comply with your commands, but you’ll never tap into their discretionary effort and creativity without influence. New outcomes are going to require new thinking. And that new thinking is going to come from people and relationships—not power, position, or prestige.

That’s why it’s important to consider leadership as a long game. It must be an intentional effort; influence doesn’t happen by accident.

So how do you play the long game to maximize your influence? Let me offer you five practical ideas:

1.     Respect. Influence is about relationships and people. Don’t treat them as resources, blocks on an organizational chart, or interchangeable pieces inside your organization. When people feel like you respect them, they’ll respect you.

2.     Commitment. Influence begins with a resolve to see it through. If you buckle at the first point of friction, people will know that you won’t follow through. This will make them less likely to endure the pain that comes in the process of reaching the goal.

3.     Clarity. Influence is about successfully creating change through people. If you aren’t clear on what change you want to take place, then you won’t be able to capture the imagination and collaboration of others.

4.     Passion. Influence has a very guttural, emotional dimension to it. It’s something you feel deep inside you. You can see it in the eyes of people and inspires them to get into alignment with you.

5.     Success. Influence is exponentially expanded with small wins along the way. It fuels the desire to keep pressing through the dip. You can only get by with influence alone for a period of time. Without some success and small victory, you risk losing momentum.

At the core of influence is human relationships.

Truthfully, at the core of any organization is people. If you find yourself stuck, you’ll need more than sound reasoning skills to get unstuck. That’s why influence is such an important concept for leaders to understand. Degrees, experience, and authority are all important. But without influence, you won’t be able to fully unleash the latent potential of your organization.

In my latest book, Framework Leadership, I offer a guide to help leaders define their roadmap to breakthrough results. It’s not a mistake that the first chapter starts with listening. I don’t mean the type of listening that is compulsory or obligatory. I mean strategic, empathetic, and engaged listening. Why is this so important? Because influence is about people, relationships, affinity, and connection.

If you want to change your present and your future, don’t underestimate the role influence will play in your leadership and what it will take to successfully activate it. It’s unlikely you’ll remember the people who told you what to do, but you will never forget the leaders who invited you to participate in something meaningful, purposeful, and significant.

Influence is certainly the long game, and it’s one worth playing.

REFLECT: If you were to rate your influence on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the least and 10 being the greatest), what number would you assign yourself? Why? What would need to change to expand your influence even more than what you have today? What’s stopping you from making those changes? What could happen if your influence expanded in those specific ways?