Influence: The True Measure of Leadership

By John C. Maxwell
Excerpt from Leadership 101

If you don’t have influence, you will never be able to lead others. So how do you find and measure influence? Here’s a story to answer that question.

In late summer of 1997, people were jolted by two events that occurred less than a week apart: the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. On the surface, the two women could not have been more different. One was a tall, young, glamorous princess from England who circulated in the highest society. The other, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was a small, elderly Catholic num born in Albania, who served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.

What’s incredible is that their impact was remarkably similar. In a 1996 poll published by the London Daily Mail, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa were voted in first and second places as the world’s two most caring people. That’s something that doesn’t happen unless you have a lot of influence. How did someone like Diana come to be regarded in the same way as Mother Teresa? The answer is that she demonstrated the power of influence.

Diana Captured the World’s Imagination

In 1981, Diana became the most talked-about person on the globe when she married Prince Charles of England. Nearly one billion people watched Diana’s wedding ceremony televised from St. Paul’s Cathedral. And since that day, it seemed people never could get enough news about her. People were intrigued with Diana, a commoner who had once been a kindergarten teacher. At first she seemed painfully shy and totally overwhelmed by all the attention she and her new husband were receiving. Early in their marriage, some reports stated that Diana wasn’t very happy performing the duties expected of her as a royal princess. However, in time she adjusted to her new role. As she started traveling and representing the royal family around the world at various functions, she quickly made it her goal to serve others and raise funds for numerous charitable causes. And during the process, she built many important relationships – with politicians, organizers of humanitarian causes, entertainers and heads of state.

Diana started rallying people to causes such as medical research for AIDS, care for people with leprosy, and a ban on land mines. She was quite influential in bringing that last issue to the attention of the world’s leaders. On a visit to the United States just months before her death, she met with members of the Clinton administration to convince them to support the Oslo conference banning the devices. And a few weeks later, they made changes in their position. Patrick Fuller of the British Red Cross said, “The attention she drew to the issue influenced Clinton. She put the issue on the world agenda, there’s no doubt about that.”

The Emergence of a Leader

In the beginning, Diana’s title had merely given her a platform to address others, but she soon became a person of influence in her own right. In 1996 when she was divorced from Prince Charles, she lost her title, but that loss didn’t at all diminish her impact on others. Instead, her influence continued to increase while that of her former husband and in-laws declined – despite their royal titles and position.

Ironically, even in death Diana continued to influence others. When her funeral was broadcast on television and BBC Radio, it was translated into forty-four languages. NBC estimated that the total audience numbered as many as 2.5 billion people – more than twice the number of people who watched her wedding.

Princess Diana has been characterized in many ways. But one word that I’ve never heard used to describe her is leader. Yet that’s what she was. Ultimately, she made things happen because she was an influencer, and leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.

Five Myths About Leadership

There are plenty of misconception and myths that people embrace about leaders and leadership. Here are five common ones:

1. The Management Myth

A widespread misunderstanding is that leading and managing are one and the same. Up until a few years ago, books that claimed to be on leadership were often really about management. The main difference between the two is that leadership is about influencing people to follow, while management focuses on maintaining systems and process. The best way to test whether a person can lead rather than just manage is to ask him to create positive change. Managers can maintain direction, but they can’t change it. To move people in a new direction, you need influence.

2. The Entrepreneur Myth

Frequently, people assume that all salespeople and entrepreneurs are leaders. But that’s not always the case. You may remember the Ronco commercials that appeared on television years ago. They sold items such as the Veg-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman, and Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler. Those products were the brainchildren of an entrepreneur named Ron Popeil. Called the salesman of the century, he has also appeared in numerous infomercials for products such as spray-on relief for baldness and food dehydrating devices.

Popeil is certainly enterprising, innovative, and successful, especially if you measure him by the $300 million in sales his products have earned. But that doesn’t make him a leader. People may be buying what he has to sell, but they’re not following him. At best, he is able to persuade people for a moment, but he holds no long-term influence with them.

3. The Knowledge Myth

Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” Most people, believing power is the essence of leadership, naturally assume that those who posses knowledge and intelligence are leaders. But that isn’t automatically true. You can visit any major university and meet brilliant research scientists and philosophers whose ability to think is so high that it’s off the charts, but whose ability to lead is so low that it doesn’t even register on the charts. IQ doesn’t necessarily equate to leadership.

4. The Pioneer Myth

Another misconception is that anyone who is out in front of the crown is a leader. But being first isn’t always the same as leading. For example, Sir Edmund Hillary was the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Since his historic ascent in 1953, many people have “followed” him in achieving that feat. But that doesn’t make Hillary a leader. He wasn’t even the leader on that particular expedition. John Hunt was. And when Hillary traveled to the South Pole in 1958 as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antartic Expedition, he was accompanying another leader, Sir Vivian Fuchs.

To be a leader, a person has to not only be out front, but also have people intentionally coming behind him, following his lead, and acting on his vision.

5. The Position Myth

The greatest misunderstanding about leadership is that people think it is based on position, but it’s not. Stanley Huffy affirmed, “It’s not the position that makes the leader; it’s the leader that makes the position.”

Look at what happened several years ago at Cordiant, the advertising agency formerly known as Saatchi & Saatchi. In 1994, institutional investors at Saatchi & Saatchi forced the board of directors to dismiss Maurice Saatchi, the company’s CEO. What was the result? Several executives followed him out. So did many of the company’s largest accounts, including British Airways and Mars, the candy maker. Saatchi’s influence was so great that his departure caused the company’s stock to fall immediately from $8 to $4 per share. Saatchi lost his title and position, but he continued to be the leader.

Who’s The Real Leader?

I personally learned the significance of influence when I accepted my first job out of college at a small church in rural Indiana. I went in with all the right credentials. I was hired as the senior pastor, which meant that I possessed the position and title of leader in that organization. I had the proper college degree. I had even been ordained. In addition, I had been trained by my father who was an excellent pastor and a very high-profile leader in the denomination. It made for a good-looking résumé – but it didn’t make me a leader. At my first board meeting, I quickly found out who was the real leader of that church. By the time I took my next position three years later, I had learned the importance of influence. I recognized that hard work was required to gain influence in any organization and to earn the right to become a leader.

Leadership Without Leverage

I admire and respect the leadership of my good friend Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington., Illinois, the largest church in North America. Bill says he believes that the church is the most leadership-intensive enterprise in society. A lot of businesspeople I know are surprised when they hear that statement, but I think Bill is right. What is the basis of his belief? Positional leadership doesn’t work in volunteer organizations. It a leader doesn’t have leverage – or influence – then he is ineffective. In other organizations, the person who has position has incredible leverage. In the military, leaders can use rank and, if all else fails, throw people to the brig. In business, bosses have tremendous leverage in the form of salary, benefits, and perks. Most followers are pretty cooperative when their livelihood is at stake.

But in voluntary organizations, such as churches, the only thing that works is leadership in its purest form. Leaders have only their influence to aid them. And as Harry A. Overstreet observed, “The very essence of all power to influence lies in getting the other person to participate.” Followers in voluntary organizations cannot be forced to get on board. If the leader has no influence with them, then they won’t follow. If you are a businessperson and you really want to find out whether your people are capable of leading, send them out to volunteer their time in the community. If they can get people to follow them while they’re serving at the Red Cross, a United Way shelter, or their local church, then you know that they really do have influence – and leadership ability.

Here is my favorite leadership proverb: “He who thinks he leads, but has not followers, is only taking a walk.” If you can’t influence others, they won’t follow you. And if they won’t follow you, you’re not a leader. No matter what anybody else tells you, remember that leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.

While influence may be the true measure of leadership, Christ-like “servanthood” is the heart of a godly leader and this is where his good influence comes from. When searching for influence to follow, listen to the heart.

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts. (Proverbs 21:2)

The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out that which is good, and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings out that which is evil, for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

There is no leader who will not make some mistakes in his leadership. That is why he needs the Lord to lead him.

A man's heart plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

There are many plans in a man's heart, but the Lord's counsel will prevail. (Proverbs 19:21)

A nation sometimes is tested when its people are made to choose between leaders with virtually equal potentials – both positive and negative potentials. Leaders with their preconceived ideas are one thing; future events unknown to them are another thing.

The king's heart in the Lord’s hand is like the watercourses. He turns it wherever He desires. (Proverbs 21:1)