Leadership is often described as an influence process. We say that leaders influence people to do things that they might not do otherwise. But what exactly does it mean to say that leadership is a form of influence?
Well, if we think through what this means, we might develop a different slant on leadership altogether.
Most people who associate leadership with influence are referring to how the person in charge of others gets subordinates to work harder or do things they may not want to do. The idea is that such a leader can't dictate what people should do and, anyway, some form of persuasion or inspiration is better than intimidation or coercion.
The problem with the usual way of associating leadership and influence is that it restricts leadership to being in charge of those who follow. But, it is arguable that outsiders can also show leadership. Take green leaders for example. A green leader might advocate a novel energy conservation technology in Norway that might have a leadership impact on a community in Australia. This is a way of showing leadership without being in charge of those who follow. Actually, leading by example doesn't entail being in charge of those who follow either. For instance, you could work smarter than your colleagues, and if they follow your example, you have shown leadership without being in charge of them, even informally. Further, groups can also lead by example. A country that implements green practices might have a leadership impact on another country. Or, consider Apple, a company that leads its competitors in a number of industries by example.
Leadership as Influence
If leadership is really a matter of influence, what does that mean? Does it mean that ALL forms of influence, even TV advertising or persuading children to eat their vegetables should be considered leadership?
The first thing to note is that the statement: "Leadership is influence." has the same form as "Snow is white." When we say that snow is white, however, we aren't committed to the absurd idea that all white things are snow. There are lots of white things that aren't snow - golf balls, white swans, white cars, etc. Similarly, saying that leadership is influence doesn't imply that all kinds of influence should count as leadership.
What kinds of influence count as leadership? This is an important question. For comparison's sake, suppose we wanted to define whales. It wouldn't help much to say that whales are mammals. That's a good start but we also want to know how whales differ from other mammals, like you and I, for instance.
It isn't too hard to rule out coercion, bribery or selling - all forms of influence that we wouldn't consider to be leadership. But, what about influencing children to eat their vegetables or motivating an employee to work harder? One criterion that might work is to say that leadership is shown between people striving to achieve the same goals. This would explain why selling isn't leadership -- because the sales person and the customer have opposite goals, the former to make a profit and the latter to get the best deal possible. Also, in the case of influencing children, again the parent and child are somewhat in opposition.
An important point here is that focusing on common goals doesn't have to mean working together to achieve them. When people in Australia follow a Norwegian green leader's proposals, they share the same goals and values but don't work together.
How To Influence People
OK, we have hopefully clarified how leadership could be defined as an influence process. So, how do you influence people? The short answer is that it depends. If you want to change people's most deeply entrenched attitudes or values, you need to be pretty inspiring or visionary. For example, Martin Luther King influenced the general population to change their attitudes regarding fairness to African Americans but only by being one of the most inspirational speech makers of all time.
On the other hand, suppose you are a software developer and you come up with a brilliant new piece of software that all your colleagues would love to get their hands on. Would you have much trouble convincing them to adopt it? No, but it is still leadership is your proposal gains followers. These examples make the point, however, that what it takes to influence people ranges from impossible to totally easy. It depends on your content and the receptivity of your target audience. In situations where "content is king" it is possible to lead people simply by having a great idea.
Leading by example takes no special influencing skills at all. People might be following your example without your even knowing it. However, most instances of leadership require some explicit influencing skills. Expressing enthusiasm or passion helps but it is also a good idea to get other people to state the advantages of your idea in their own words. Often, that works better than a direct sales pitch.
Vision and Leadership
From this discussion, it should be clear that leadership doesn't always require a vision. Again, it depends on a number of factors, not only how much resistance you face and how much you want people to change fundamental beliefs, it also depends on how immediate the action in question is. For example, JFK's vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's was a vision of a future event several years away. But, when you are leading by example and people follow, they can implement your practice immediately. No vision required here.
So why is it so common to say that vision is essential for leadership? Because we are overly fixated on larger-than-life "great" leaders but at the cost of overlooking small acts of everyday leadership that are not visionary. This is unfortunate because we desperately need more everyday leadership and we need to stop relying on the super-heroic kind.
Where do you want to go from here?
Want to read more on the relationship between vision and leadership? If leadership isn't just an influence process, then it's a role in a hierarchy, but this is biologically primitive. See Primitive Leadership for more on this topic. For more discussion of how leadership can work as influence, see Thought Leadership, Bottom-up Leadership and Organic Leadership.