Take the Lead by Cultivating the Currency of Leadership: Influence
January is the social media season of promotions, Big Decisions, and New-Year-New-Me Proclamations. We spiff our profiles up with declarations about how this year will be Great. About how humbled and excited we are to be tapped on the shoulder for something bigger or more expansive. It’s inspiring to see folks lighting up my feed with their accomplishments and plans, and it’s fun to cheer others on. And I know there are countless others who didn’t get that big role. Who still aren’t sure about that big (or small) leap. When you’re in this boat, the social media buzz this time of year can feel like a deafening and defeating onslaught.
At one point in my career I was frustrated because it was very clear to me that I should be promoted. I couldn’t understand why the leaders in my company weren’t doing a number of things I thought they should be doing. I was focused on positional power, on increasing my authority in the organization. I was sure I could have a bigger impact if I could just get a more senior title with a more prominent seat at that table. I sat down with one of my mentors to express my frustration and get her advice. Don’t sit back and wait for people more senior to lead, she told me. The currency of leadership is influence. Leading with influence is as important (and often more rewarding) as leading with control or power.
I thought about the leaders that I most admired and respected. Sometimes they were at the top of the org chart, but more often they were really smart people who were engaged deeply with their teams, their work, and the world around them. They were influential because they had a point of view that was compelling. They cared about and engaged with the perspectives of others. They were visionaries who listened closely and made connections others couldn’t or didn’t. And they always had their fingerprints on the ideas, projects and initiatives that moved the business forward. Influence is cultivated, and it is directly correlated to leadership because people follow influential people.
Instead of focusing exclusively on my position and title, I began to direct my attention to the influence I had in the organization. I searched for ways to cultivate more influence, and expand my impact with the peers and leaders around me. I asked myself:
How do I contribute to a group when I interact?
When, where, how and with whom do I have the biggest impact? How can I expand that circle?
What are the personal relationships that have been most valuable in my current role? How can I expand that circle to extend my influence (and learn from new people)?
What are the critical path projects that I may not be leading, but that I can influence? How can I prioritize differently to ensure my voice is heard?
What are the outcomes I want to be associated with, and is my time appropriately allocated toward these outcomes?
This expanded focus helped me show up differently as a leader. I had more awareness of the broader challenges in play. Work was more satisfying because I was as engaged in the tasks in front of me as I was in leading and participating in the conversations that would create new opportunities for everyone. By expanding my relationships and my influence, I was in different rooms, different conversations and eventually, found my way into bigger roles. And when I got those bigger roles, I had more credibility because of the time I spent cultivating influence.
The path to leadership is almost never a straight line. We succeed and we fail and we keep on learning. We grow from experience. If you’re only focused on your next role or title, it’s easy to miss opportunities to learn, grow, and to expand your leadership by connecting with others about these experiences. As pioneering civil rights leader, Congresswoman and Presidential Candidate Shirley Chisholm famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Don’t sit back and wait to be tapped on the shoulder. Don’t sit back and wait for those with authority to lead. Grab your folding chair, pull up to the table and start cultivating influence. You’ll grow as a person, as a leader and in all likelihood, you’ll make progress toward whatever role or goal you’re targeting next.