Google the term “leadership” sometime, and experience firsthand what it feels like to be overwhelmed (over 162 million references containing thousands of different characterizations). Somewhere in that ocean of information, you will come across the definition that Dr. Paul Hersey, founder of The Center for Leadership Studies, coined in the late 1960s:
“Leadership is an attempt to influence.”
With biases duly noted, what still resonates about that definition for us at The Center for Leadership Studies is both its simplicity and its reach:
- Any time you are trying to influence the behavior of another person or group, you are attempting to lead.
- That includes managers/coaches influencing employees/players, parents influencing children, sales professionals influencing prospects/customers, etc.
It is also a definition that is intentionally multidirectional. It encompasses the dynamics of peer influence (or “influence without authority”) as well as upward influence (i.e., employees/players attempting to influence their managers/coaches; children attempting to influence their parents; and prospects/customers attempting to influence the sales professionals that call on them).
Another, probably obvious, understanding that we have about leadership is that not all attempts to influence are successful (i.e., just because you feel like leading doesn’t mean that the person you are attempting to influence is predisposed to follow).
So, what drives successful leadership? In a word: power! If leadership is an attempt to influence, then power is influence potential. Consider three highly interdependent subsets of power as key drivers of successful influence:
- Legitimate power is grounded in the perception that the leader’s influence attempts and decisions are appropriate given the leader’s role or title. Sometimes the easiest way to come to grips with the concept of legitimate power is to think in terms of “should” or “ought”:
- “She should be able to give me some useful insight on my challenges, because she is a salesperson from a reputable company with a high-value brand.”
- “He ought to just make this decision and let us get on with it, because, after all, he is the manager of the department.”
- Referent power is grounded in the perception that the leader displays behaviors and personal characteristics that have earned the respect and trust of others:
- “I’d feel comfortable telling her anything.”
- “When he says he’s going to do something, he does it!”
Referent power is almost entirely a function of what (and how) others perceive your actions. If the target of your influence attempts trust you, they will transparently share important information. If they don’t, they won’t!
- Expert power is grounded in the perception that the leader possesses relevant knowledge, judgment and experience:
- “She did her undergrad at Cornell and got her Master’s at Stanford.”
- “No one has more direct experience with this kind of opportunity than he does.”
Expert power is a function of formal education, acknowledged credentials and (most importantly) documented skill application that produced measurable (and desirable) results.
Leveraging your base of legitimate power effectively is often associated with the art (because it certainly isn’t a science) of accountability. The more you use legitimate power judiciously and appropriately, the more it can increase your referent power.
Referent power is something you earn every day and can lose in a heartbeat. The more referent power you establish, the more legitimate power you seem to accumulate.
Expert power takes work. The more you study and gain relevant experience, the more subject matter expertise you inevitably gain. The more expert power you have, the more legitimate power you seem to acquire.
So, net-net, it would appear that leadership equals influence and influence requires power.