by Jennifer R. Farmer
Most of what I have learned about leadership I have observed from former managers and from my own triumphs and failures. One lesson stands out. When I began managing people 15 years ago, I thought having a fancy title was synonymous with influence. Over time, I learned that power is conferred based on likeability, authenticity, courage, relationships and consistent behavior. When leaders cultivate these attributes, they earn power which really means influence.
Understanding influence is essential to professional growth, and companies rise and fall based on the quality of their leadership.
But what makes a leader fail? A host of factors influence a leader’s ability to succeed. To the extent that leaders fail to outline a compelling vision and strategy, they risk losing the trust and confidence of their teams. Employees want to know where a company is going and the strategy for how they will get there. Having this information enables employees to feel safe, and it allows them to see mistakes as part of the learning journey versus a fatal occurrence.
If employees and customers do not believe a company’s leadership is authentic and inspiring, they may disengage, or they may be less inclined to offer constructive criticism that can help a company innovate or help a leader improve.
And it is not just the leadership at the top that matters. Middle managers play a distinct role in guiding teams. Depending on the size of a company, employees may have more access to mid-level managers than they do members of the C-Suite, meaning their supervisors and managers have greater influence on the employee and the customer experience.
Effective leadership is inspiring, and it is influential. Cultivating inspiring and influential leaders requires building relationships across the company. Leaders must be connected to both the teams they lead as well as to their own colleagues and managers. This is key as titles do not make a person a leader, nor do they automatically confer influence. These are earned through trusting relationships. This explains why some leaders can get more out of their teams than others, and why some leaders experience soaring profits and engagement while others sizzle out.
Eric Garton said in an August 25, 2017 Harvard Business Review article “…inspiring leaders are those who use their unique combination of strengths to motivate individuals and teams to take on bold missions – and hold them accountable for results. And they unlock higher performance through empowerment, not command and control.”
To be an inspiring and influential leader requires:
Courage. The late poet Maya Angelou once said “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” Courage is required in the workplace when implementing new strategies, especially when they go against professional norms. For instance, I heard Lisa Terkeurst, bestselling-author and founder of Proverbs 31 Ministries explain her decision to move away from her company’s magazine. While the organization had long had a magazine she saw a future where it didn’t exist. In order to make the switch, she risked angering her team members and customers. She took a chance and has grown her company’s online followers to  million. It also takes courage to share and receive feedback. When leaders see employees who are not living into the company’s mission or engaging in behavior that may undermine their long-term success, it takes courage to risk momentarily hurting an employees feelings or angering them, to tell the truth. Similarly, it takes courage to listen to constructive criticism without taking it personally or holding a vendetta against the person or persons raising the issue. In business, courage is a necessity for being an inspiring and influential leader.
A commitment to face your internal demons. If you feel great about yourself, enter a leadership position. You are likely to be triggered in ways you didn’t think possible. You are also likely to receive feedback that may leave you second-guessing yourself and your leadership skills. The truth about leading others is you get to a point where you realize that it is difficult to take people to places where you yourself haven’t gone. To be an influential and inspiring leader, you have to face your own demons and vow to continually improve. Influential leaders take their personal evolution serious and they invest in coaching, therapy and mindfulness to ensure that their personal struggles do not overshadow their professional development.
A willingness to accept feedback. An inspiring and influential leader is not afraid to accept feedback. In fact, they actively solicit it. They understand that everyone in their life has a lesson to teach them and they are willing to accept it. Inspirational leaders understand that feedback is neither good nor bad, but rather an offering that is critical to growth. Even when it hurts or is an affront to the ego, influential leaders understand that feedback is critical to their ability to lead.
Likability. Some people will argue that leaders need not worry about being liked but should instead focus on being respected. I disagree. Both are important. When team members like their boss, and believe their boss likes them, they are more likely to go the extra mile to fulfill departmental or organizational goals. Likable leaders are moved to the front of the line when it comes to being influential. Relatedly, when colleagues feel they are disliked by management, they experience internal stress and can spend unnecessary time focusing on the source of their manager’s discontent versus the work they have been hired to do. So, likability is important for both the leader and the people she leads.
Vulnerability. Vulnerability is critical for being an inspiring leader. People want the truth. They admire leaders who can occasionally demonstrate vulnerability. It promotes deeper relationships and inspires trust. When a leader can showcase vulnerability appropriately, they destroy the illusion that one must be perfect to be a leader. They also demonstrate that vulnerability is not a dirty word; they too can be vulnerable and ask for a helping hand when necessary.
Authenticity. Authenticity is about living up to one’s stated values in public and behind closed doors. Influential leaders are authentic. They set live out their values and use those values to guide their decisions. The interesting thing about leadership, is people are not looking for perfect leaders. They are, in part, looking for leaders who are authentic.
A true understanding of inspiration. Effective leaders are inspirational. They understand the power of words and deeds and use both strategically. Inspiring leaders appropriately use stories and narratives to enable the teams around them to see common situations in an entirely new light. Inspirational leaders also showcase grit and triumph, while convincing the people around them that success and victory is attainable. Finally, inspiring leaders encourage the teams they lead to tap into their own genius. I guess they convince others that genius is not reserved for a select few, but that most people have it in them.
As fellow LifeHack.org contributor Emilie Chu observes, “A leader creates visions and motivates team members to work together towards the same goal.”
An ability to see the humanity in others. Inspiring and influential leaders see the humanity in others. Rather than treating their teams as mere tools to accomplish organizational goals, they believe the people around them are unique beings with inherent value. This means knowing when to pause to address personal challenges and dispelling with the myth that the personal is separate from the professional.
A passion for continual learning. Inspiring and influential leaders are committed to continual learning. They invest in their own development and take responsibility for their professional growth. These leaders understand that like a college campus, the workplace is a laboratory for learning. They believe that they can learn from multiple generations in the workplace as well as from people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Influential leaders proactively seek out opportunities for learning.
No one said leadership was easy, but it is also a joy. Influencing others to action and positively impacting the lives of others is a reward unto itself. Since leadership abounds, there is an abundance of resources to help you grow into the type of leader who inspires and influences others.
Jennifer R. Farmer, aka The PR Whisperer, is an author, lecturer and strategic communications adviser for socially conscious organizations, leaders and celebrities. Follow her on IG/Twitter using @pr_whisperer.