Do You Want to Be Powerful or Influential?

Imagine you are negotiating your future UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2007: a postage stamp printed in USA showiwith a great and mighty genie. He’s ready to grant you the ultimate tool of your career: great formal power or profound influence. Which one would you choose?

Time Magazine released its annual “The 100 Most Influential People” list last week. Among those profiled were Tim Cook, Janet Yellen, Pope Francis, Xi Jinping and, separately, Kayne and Kim Kardashian West. Eclectic collection, huh? The list intends to capture those influencers who have an unquestionable and profound impact on their profession, vocation and society as a whole. You don’t need to like the names chosen by the editors of Time, but you cannot argue these names don’t have impact.

Which got me thinking about the assumptions we make concerning the one aspect we say we must possess in order to be professionally successful. The go-to answer is power, naturally. Who wouldn’t want to have the right title, the right organizational authority and the attendant respect/fear to get things done? For centuries, power was what men (mostly) lusted after and actively sought. Influence was the domain of those who did not succeed at acquiring their desired level of power or who preferred to stay out of the limelight. Power, after all, demands a very high level of vigilance and responsibility. Said another way, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Just ask Spiderman.

Yet we increasingly function in a world where old-school authority alone is not enough to be effective, more so in cultures that are open and where higher proportions of the population are educated. Impact and adherence is harder to maintain where people routinely question their circumstances, where they constantly determine if what they are being told or asked to do makes sense for them. Impact and adherence are even harder to maintain when people believe they have alternatives to the circumstance being offered.

Eric Van den Steen of Harvard’s Business School published a working paper in early 2009 entitled “Authority versus Persuasion.” Van den Steen established that in efforts requiring a high level of participant motivation to ensure success, leaders relying on persuasion vs. authority would find better results. In other words, persuasion not only aided in getting participants to work effectively, it also contributed to their willingness to work better. Plainly put, if a leader tells people to do something, he/she will get a certain level of compliance. Influence them to undertake the work, though, and they will do more than merely comply, they will take it upon themselves to go above and beyond.

I found in my own career that influence, well-used, was far more impactful than straight authority. This not only applied to my own teams but to clients and peers. My view has always been that it is better to bring someone along with you than demand pure compliance. Over time, I observed that not only was I meeting my objectives with this approach, I was making an even greater impact than I imagined. Truthfully, this is what I really wanted – the ability to achieve while influencing the achievements of others. I wanted my contributions to live on beyond me, not become fodder for someone to overturn when they had the chance.

This is probably why I found the Time list of the “The 100 Most Influential People” so fascinating. Per Time, these people achieved, and continue to achieve, beyond their local work. They contribute to the world that exists beyond them. They make an Impact.

So when the great and mighty genie knocks on my door, he doesn’t even have to finish his question. I already know my answer.













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