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Power or influence? Your choice determines leadership success

Leaders can choose whether they develop power or influence, but Steve McKee says only one leads to effective leadership.

5 min read


power or influence

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Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “The most basic human motivation is to impose our will on other people.” As nefarious as that sounds, there is some truth to it. It may not be so much that we desire to dominate others, but if we’re in a position of leadership we do get to choose which way to go. That’s appealing.


Leaders lead because they want to get somewhere. People need leaders because they want to go somewhere. That’s as true of introducing someone to a new restaurant as it is of charting the course of a company or determining where to go on vacation. Someone gets to pick the destination. Whether it’s a family, a company, a city or a nation, those in positions of leadership get to move it in the direction they believe is best. They see a better place and want to take us all there.

Implied in Nietzsche’s glum observation is the idea that how we lead people is at least as important as where we lead them. All tyrants start out as leaders, but not all leaders become tyrants. “Because I’m the boss” isn’t the most effective leadership strategy, especially in a tight job market where your best people have plenty of options. Demanding compliance is a game of diminishing returns. 

Power or influence?

The key to effective leadership, I believe, lies in understanding the difference between power and influence. Either one can move people, but one does so via coercion and the other inspiration. 

The extent to which you’re “the boss” in your organization means you have some power, and there will be times when you need to exercise it. But I suggest you use it sparingly because, as ironic as it sounds, the more power you exercise, the less influence you will maintain. By contrast, the more influence you gain, the more power you will effectively have. History is rife with examples of powerful dictators who, once they were deposed, lived on only in infamy. By contrast, the legacies of those who pursued lives of influence (from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill) continue to inspire us.

Governing yourself is key to influence

So how does a leader attain influence? Entire books have been written on that subject, but I would offer a helpful guiding principle: influence begins with self-governance. 

When the Constitutional Convention came to a close in late 1787, a woman asked Ben Franklin what kind of government the founders had given us. He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We all learn in grade school what a republic is, but it used to puzzle me what Franklin meant by “if you can keep it.”

I think the answer was provided by another founding father, John Adams. Reflecting on the incredible charter he had helped create, Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams believed that before we seek to govern others, we must first govern ourselves. If we want to influence others, we must first be worthy of influence. 

That, however, is neither a quick nor easy task. The long road to influence is reflected in the oft-cited words of an American essayist born shortly after the founders’ time, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” This is as true in our professional lives as it is in our personal lives. One way of extending Emerson’s wisdom to the workplace might be this: How we lead is a function of what we say; what we say is a function of what we think; what we think is a function of what we believe. 

Steps to becoming influential

Do you want to become a person of influence? Begin by thinking deeply about the humanity and dignity of those who work for you. Consider your responsibilities to them as a leader. Think about the necessity of your example and the quality of your performance. About how you can create a leadership legacy of which you can be proud. And then set your mind to, day by day, thinking, saying and doing based on those beliefs. 

I have come to the firm conviction that influence is a more worthy pursuit than power. One is lasting, the other ephemeral. One is inspiring, the other coercive. One is attractive, the other repellent. People bristle under power. People blossom under influence

But there’s no shortcut. Author J. Oswald Sanders once said, “It is a general principle that we can influence and lead others only so far as we ourselves have gone.” Power can be seized in an instant. Influence takes time to develop. It’s up to you which one to pursue. 


Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. McKee is the author of  “When Growth Stalls” and  “Power Branding.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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