The 3 Keys To Influential Leadership

Dictating instructions from on high doesn’t work that well, and for women leaders especially, it can be downright counterproductive.

The 3 Keys To Influential Leadership

There’s one approach to leadership that’s known as “command and control.” It’s when those in authority whip others into gear more or less by force. The other is more nuanced, and it’s about using influence to win support and spark collaborative action. Needless to say, the two methods aren’t created equal. In today’s workplace, influential leadership usually leads to stronger results, but it takes a bit of know-how to get it right.


Authority Versus Influence

In many companies, multiple business divisions compete for limited resources. How much they each manage to secure is sometimes the result of the approaches each division’s leader takes to their teams.

Say for example that the head of one such unit requires everyone on her team to get involved with problem solving and decision making. Each team member is responsible for directing one strategic initiative each, and all of them fit into the division’s overarching goals. The division head dictates the objectives for each of her direct reports and meets with them individually to enforce deadlines.

A second division head takes a different approach. She makes all the decisions and directs every initiative herself, with her team members merely executing orders.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the second approach, but it just doesn’t go as far in today’s business environment, where more companies are striving to keep their employees engaged and therefore productive. In this new world, a leader who applies influence rather than asserts authority is likelier to succeed.


A Dilemma For Women Leaders—And A Way Out Of It

According to Rutgers University researchers Julie Phelan and Laurie Rudman, there’s a pernicious double standard when it comes to certain leadership behaviors. Being forceful, assertive, and commanding–attributes stereotypical of male leaders–tends to be viewed positively when exhibited by men in positions of authority but negatively when women leaders take on those traits. Instead, they’re seen as brusque and overbearing, which makes it harder for them to achieve the kinds of results that (other barriers notwithstanding) might help them advance.

The alternative leadership style has shown signs of being an effective antidote. The researcher Alice Eagly and her colleagues at Northwestern University have found in their many studies that successful women leaders solve this dilemma by using a more democratic leadership style. My own studies and 20 years of professional experience bear that out.

Influential leadership can help more women excel in leadership roles, but it can be an asset to any leader at all, and it boils down to three key elements:

  1. “Persuading up” by establishing a shared vision and values
  2. Inspiring commitment by engaging every team member
  3. Strategically steering initiatives by collaborating to achieve that shared vision

1. The Art Of Persuasion

Leaders need to share their own values and passion with the person, group, or company they’re working to influence. Use empathy to understand what really matters to the other party, then connect with it. Those emotionally grounded connections can help you make a compelling case for your agenda without being seen as too aggressive. If you build off of values your team members all share, your approach won’t threaten anyone you’re trying to persuade. Instead, they’ll be your collaborators in accomplishing something that you both want.

2. Inspiring Commitment

Once you’ve persuaded others to join your cause, you need to keep them on board in order to execute it. Engendering loyalty and a sense of belonging is key to that, but leaders tend to accomplish it in a few different ways. One way is by providing a forum for everyone to hear about the business and ask questions as a project moves forward. The impression of transparency and collaboration such a forum creates helps sustain the team’s common, trust in one another, and its sense of “we-ness.”


Another way for leaders to inspire commitment is to focus on the interpersonal ties between and among team members and themselves. But it’s more than just encouraging cooperation. Leaders who take this approach to commitment need to forge those links through real engagement–by involving everyone in problem-solving goal setting, which has the same end result as the more communal strategy. In both, though, everyone comes away feeling a sense of ownership over what they’re trying to achieve together.

3. Strategic Control

Leaders don’t need to cede control altogether, just apply it strategically and without micromanaging. That means guiding the initiatives you’ve delegated to others. Help your teams understand exactly what they need to achieve, and help them decide among the ways they can achieve it. It’s a form of delegation where the delegates lead the charge while the leader facilitates and watches their backs. As a leader, you’ll maintain control over the agenda while fostering collaboration. But it’s still a world away from autocratically making all the decisions yourself–which usually reduces your group’s effectiveness.

Influential leaders are showing us the way to lead strongly and effectively without “carrying a big stick.” Using inclusive behaviors to keep control, gain buy-in, and advance their agendas, leaders at all levels achieve results using the power of influence. That isn’t to say that old-style command and control doesn’t still work in some cases. But for most leaders today–and for women in particular–influence is a more effective route to success.

This article is adapted from Breaking Through “Bitch”: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly (Career Press, 2015) by Carol Vallone Mitchell, Ph.D., the cofounder of Talent Strategy Partners. It is reprinted with permission.