Power and influence are often described as one and the same, but they are actually very different. My life in business has shown me that if you want to achieve lasting change, you must appreciate that difference.
When people talk about power, they usually think of it as the power of coercion: the ability to make others do what you want them to do. People are “subordinates,” and they aren’t asked for their thoughts or their consent. They are just told what to do. In this paradigm, power depends on coercion and punishment to ensure that instructions are followed.
Early in my career, looking at the people around me, I thought that leadership success was obtained through this sort of coercive power. I relied on my position in a hierarchy to get people to do what I wanted, knowing they understood that I had the power to withhold approval and to impose penalties. People followed instructions because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t.
But I saw that when the fear of coercive power lessened, so did the ability to get people to follow instructions without their voluntary cooperation. I saw projects managed through coercive power crumble and fade away as soon as that power to penalize became ineffective.
Once I realized that concrete tasks and achievements created by coercion dissolved when coercion stopped, I wondered how I could ever create lasting organizational change, cultural and otherwise. What I had thought was lasting power was in fact very ephemeral. True power was not “getting” people to do what I wanted. True power was giving them a reason to choose to follow my lead. I needed to share a vision and make it compelling enough that people would want to bring it to fruition. I learned that influence-based power is much more effective than coercive power.
Influence-based leadership is also much subtler than leadership through coercion. When influence is most effective, people act in concert because they share a vision of an outcome and have a sense of being invested in achieving that outcome. Who had the idea or gets the credit is less important than getting buy-in from the group.
As I looked around, I saw that the most influential leaders were often not at the head of a parade telling people what to do. Instead, they were spectators along the parade route, happily eating popcorn and enjoying the parade they helped start. They knew that power is not something asserted over others. It is something that people assert for themselves in support of a common vision. When each person is vested in an idea or a mission, each person will defend it and work to realize it, not because of fear, but because of the satisfaction that will come with achieving the goal.
I believe that this lesson of business leadership should be applied more often to policy making and governance. By focusing on power through coercion rather than influence or consent, many of our political leaders legislate on partisan lines without the support of those holding contrary views.
Perhaps we should respect our history more. Our nation is based on the concept of consensus and getting buy-in from the governed. That is what made it different from the autocracies and monarchies our ancestors came here to escape. Our system works best when we honor its founding principles.
Business leaders know that lasting change in business only occurs when we effect that change through consent and agreement. It’s a lesson that our current political leaders would be wise to remember as they consider the path ahead.
Change obtained without consensus is unlikely to last.