The Most Important Leadership Ingredient


I remember my early years in leadership. I was full of energy, ideas, and had very little patience. There was one key decision that I thought was a great move, and I was sure it was a slam dunk to get the support of my team.

When the meeting time came, I walked to the front of the room and didn’t get three sentences out before I was interrupted by the first of many questions—some of which I hadn’t even considered.  And to be honest, I didn’t have very good answers. That “slam dunk” presentation was only supposed to last about 10 minutes. It went on for a whole 90 minutes. That was, without a doubt, the longest meeting of my life. The reason is that I didn’t know the difference between influence and leadership.

I had been so impressed with my ideas and new title that I assumed everyone was waiting for me to come up with the next “big” idea.  The reality was that if I was going to lead a team, I needed to get their input and include that as part of my plan.



Both words are used in similar context, but they mean very different things. Leadership speaks to the idea of authority and position while influence speaks to the ability to align people and plans to drive toward an outcome.

I’ve met very influential people who aren’t necessarily in a leadership role. At the same time, I’ve met some people in very powerful positions who have little to no influence at all.

I’ve come to realize that influence is personal while leadership is often organizational. Those are two distinct realities. Whatever exists on an organizational chart is just half the story. The other half is building a connection with the people I would work closest with to accomplish the results and goals defined.



If you want to take your leadership and your team to the next level, you’ll need to understand the ground rules for building and growing your influence over time. Here are seven ideas to consider:

1.     Influence is earned over time. You can get the promotion in a day, but it will take time to earn the opportunity to influence others. You can’t get around this reality.

2.     Influence requires trust. You must earn the confidence of those you lead through consistency in your actions and words. If you say one thing and do another, you’ll never fully realize the power of influence.

3.     Influence is grounded in relationships. You lead initiatives, but you influence people. Being a great leader isn’t about the tasks you can execute as much as how you can assemble and activate the talents and skills of others to drive toward a shared vision.

4.     Influence demands long-term thinking. You can dictate an action in a moment, but you must play the long game if you want to leverage your influence to drive toward breakthrough outcomes.

5.     Influence can’t be faked. There is no getting around it. You either have it, or you don’t. And if you’re not sure, you don’t.

6.     Influence must be reinforced daily. Once you earn influence, you will need to re-earn it again and again. It’s not a blank check tied to an endless bank account. You can have influence one moment then destroy it completely through one or two fatal mistakes.

7.     Influence is the building block of enduring leadership. Leadership, in my opinion, is not contained to one organization or role. It is part of our divine design. That means endurance is the name of the game. If you want to continue to lead decade after decade, then you’ll need to study influence and earn that from those you lead consistently.



If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, run! Earning the right to influence others is hard work because it is deeply entangled with human relationships––which are inherently complex. While the concepts of influence might seem straight-forward, business and personal relationships require care and “maintenance” over time if you want them to last.

Without influence, you will always be limited in the strength of your leadership to drive toward breakthrough outcomes. And don’t expect to be the singular influence on every group you lead. Part of your job is to develop the influence of others within and outside the organization. It’s critical to expanding the growth potential and capacity of your organization.

Strategic listening is where it all begins. That will provide the inspiration necessary to build a framework to lead your team through. If you are patient, you’ll find that influence will help you go farther faster. The paradox is it won’t feel like it. But when groups of people work together, you always get more accomplished.

Don’t let yourself become infatuated with the authority your position extends to you. Recognize that without influence it doesn’t mean anything at all.