Leadership: Inspiration and Influence

My first coach said, “As soon as you get comfortable with the earth moving beneath your feet, you’ll be fine.”

In today’s world, change is a way of life, and for organizations to thrive in this dynamic environment, leaders need to be creative—to see with fresh eyes and find new ways of connecting the dots. And they need to be receptive, genuinely open to listening—to hearing other points of view.  And they need to be resilient and model that resilience for others. And they need to be inspirational, creating excitement and generating our emotional commitment to an idea, a challenge or a cause. 

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Inspiration is a form of influence and influence is a key leadership skill. Think for a minute about someone in your life, particularly in your professional life, who has influenced your behavior in a positive way. How did that happen? Was it something he did? Was it something she said?

In today’s organizations, making things happen is no longer about command and control.

It is about persuade and enroll. As Ken Blanchard says, “The key to successful leadership today is not authority, it is influence.”

A Shared Vision

It starts with a vision to share—an idea worth pursuing, and the ability to share that idea in a way that engages and enrolls others. It’s about grabbing our attention and moving us in whole new directions. 

I’m reminded of the Federal Express story and all that has happened since then. Back in 1970, freight delivery typically took several days and Fred Smith believed in the possibility of delivering pretty much anything, anywhere, overnight.  He started with two airplanes he called his “550-mile per hour delivery trucks.” He faced many obstacles before his idea really “took off,” but ultimately he revolutionized not just freight delivery but our very expectations about time. Nearly 50 years ago, we were amazed at being able to send a few 8.5x11 pages in an overnight FED EX Envelope.  Now we can send the written word, voice and video instantaneously and drones can deliver packages to the front door.            

Choosing Our Words

Our ability to influence depends not only on our ideas, but also on how well we choose our words. The greatest leaders have been able to craft their messages in ways that resonate not just with a few like-minded people, but with the many whose experiences and perceptions may differ widely. 

I remember once, several years ago, traveling around the country during the heat of a Presidential campaign season. Within just a few weeks’ time, I had been from the East coast to the West, and from New York City to the deep South. One day, as I was driving down a dirt road in South Louisiana, strewn with the debris of the sugar cane harvest, I found myself thinking about the Presidential candidates and marveling at how they could craft messages that would resonate with both the people on Wall Street and the people on that dusty dirt road. 

Leading by Example

Probably the most effective way leaders are able to influence is leading by example—being a model of the values and ideas they espouse. And they inspire us to be like them. There’s no better example than Randy Pausch, the professor at Carnegie Mellon who lost his life to pancreatic cancer about ten years ago. Just ten months before his death, he delivered the now famous, “Last Lecture” about how to achieve your childhood dreams.  

Talk about leading by example! Here’s a man who was facing imminent death, and yet dedicated the rest of his time and energy providing inspiration and hope to the rest of us.   

Influence Reminders

So if these are some effective ways to influence others, what are some things to keep in mind when using your influencing skills?

First, people deal with change in different ways. What may seem like a good idea to you, may not seem like such a swell idea to others. At least not right away. Some want change to happen fast and others want it slow (or not at all). There are the “tell me now” people and the “tell me later” people—those who want to be included all along the way, and others who would be completely derailed by that kind of day-to-day uncertainty. Some people want to know how the change will make things different, while others need to be assured that you won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  

Second, leaders need to be realistic about what’s possible. The visionary and inspiring leaders we’ve been describing, have big ideas and lots of enthusiasm. But are they great ideas, or classroom solutions?  How many times have you heard something that you agreed sounded terrific, but you’re thinking to yourself, “way easier said than done.” That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. We did, after all, land on the moon and build the global internet. 

A third caution is about setting the pace of change. Daniel Goleman talked about this in his book, Primal Leadership. Great leaders often have a sense of urgency and sometimes take off ahead of the crowd. So the caution here is to pace yourself. Take a deep breath and remember that you can’t go it alone. Then set the pace for others. It might be faster than some would have it, and not fast enough for others, but it won’t do any good to leave everyone in the dust.

Finally, as a leader of change, whether you are talking to the champions or resisters, you need first to be a good listener. Put yourself in the other’s shoes and then decide what you want to say. Figure out how to speak in a way that your audience can hear and that you can deliver with true integrity.   

If you are a resilient, creative and inspiring leader using your skills to lead others just like you, go ahead and use your intuition. Inspire them with abstract ideas and possibilities. But remember that intuition won’t be enough for everyone. Others will need facts and data before they will go along. For them, you must be grounded in logic.

But logic won’t be enough either, because there are others concerned with harmony and peoples’ feelings. When influencing them, appeal to their values and acknowledge concerns.   

Finally, being a change agent won’t be enough. You must also be a stabilizing influence as well.  You need to let people know that while the earth may be moving beneath their feet, they will still be okay.

Challenging Times

We live in challenging times, and one thing is certain. There will be change. And there will be leaders who come up with amazing ideas that may seem improbable or impossible at first, but in fact can make a tremendous difference. So here’s my question to you. When the earth seems to be moving beneath you and those you serve, what will you do as a leader to be a model and an influence for positive change?