Leading with Authentic-Influence

Today, there appears to be a subtle drift as to how people, in general, understand leadership. The confusion stems from two opposing points of view regarding a foundational tenet of what it means to be a leader. On one side is the idea of “Forced-Authority”; on the other, “Authentic-Influence.”

The traditional hierarchical structure has been handed down from thousands of years of use in military and government rule. A leader, at the top, provides direction to those who are subject to them in a descending reporting structure. This basic configuration is so common today, most every organization around the world is structured in a similar manner.

Generally, the system works . . . until it doesn’t. When ill-prepared individuals rise to the top of the leadership pyramid, confusion begins to ensue. Since confusion is not an option, the ill-prepared leader has but one choice: To muscle their way through the confusion—forced-authority. 

A forced-authority leader is best recognized as the person who most often tells people what to do, when to do, and how to do. They are tellers not teachers. Typically, this leader uses their positional power to push progress within a team or organization. This person is not to be confused as always being mean spirited. On the contrary, many forced-authority leaders are well meaning, just needing to elevate their leadership influence in a few critical areas. Don’t get me wrong, there are an abundant number of “Brilliant Jerk” leaders who make up the majority of the forced-authority leaders. As an eternal optimist, it is my belief that even the brilliant jerk leader can move from forced-authority to authentic-influence.

The perils of forced-authority are apparent. In a full employment economy, we get a unique glimpse of the current multi-generational workforce. Here is what we know on a high level. People are still leaving managers and not companies (brilliant or not so brilliant jerks). People are leaving for better pay and benefits and to improve their personal wellbeing. Each of these reasons, while important, still only rank in the lower percentiles as to why people are leaving.

According to a current Mercer study, the top causes for people leaving an organization is a promotion or lack of development within their current organization. A Glassdoor study would add the culture of the organization as a leading indicator of turnover.

Here is what we know: Culture is the way people think, feel, and act. When leaders create a forced-authority experience, telling people what to do, how to do, and when to do, they produce a culture of command and control, limiting development.

With most forced-authority leaders, they often produce a desired result for the organization. This creates a unique challenge within the culture as it validates a confirmation bias (belief) that their way is the right way. The price we pay, the loss of important talent within the organization. According to Josh Bersin of Bersin by Deloitte, “A new employee can take up to two years to reach the same level of productivity as an existing staff member.” Turnover of top talent slows the organization’s ability to deliver, which, in turn, puts additional pressure on ill-prepared leaders to perform, and creating a greater perceived need to use forced-authority as a means to an end.

There is a way out of this vicious trap . . . Authentic-Influence.

Good Leaders Come from Great Followers

The idea of authentic-influence comes from the premise, to be a good leader you need to be a great follower. Our ability to influence, contrary to what some may believe, doesn’t come from our position of authority but from our attitude of service toward others. Leadership is about service to others rather than telling others what to do. The reality: We become a reflection of those we follow.

Don’t miss a subtle, yet important, point. As a follower, I need to understand the importance of following instructions and, at times, doing what I’m told to do. This is why we have laws, policies, rules, and governing principles. The important point is this: Should a leader fail to demonstrate a desire to help others find their true potential and purpose, they fail to connect in a meaningful way. At the core, it’s about our ability to connect.

There are two main connection points for an authentic-leader: Purpose and character.

Connect to Purpose

When it comes to our work, either at home or in the marketplace, we view what we do in one of three ways, according to Yale professor, Amy Wrzesniewski’s research. Dr. Wrzesniewski says that we see our occupation as either a job, a career, or a calling. “A calling is work that you view as integral to your identity and meaning in life, an expression of who you are that gives you a feeling of fulfillment and meaning.” (Shawn Achor, Big Potential)

Giving people meaning in life “activates their intrinsic motivation and self-directed behavior,” according to my good friend, Dr. Jason Jones, author of 28 days to a Motivated Team. Dr. Jones adds, “This is the difference between, ‘I have to follow’ and ‘I want to follow.’”

When a leader serves the best interest of those they lead, the leader demonstrates authentic-influence. To say this was easy would be an understatement. Connecting to purpose and serving others in a way to help them connect to purpose requires a level of vulnerability most leaders would struggle to demonstrate.

Vulnerability on Purpose

Don’t confuse vulnerability to weakness or the idea of over sharing, says Dr. Brene’ Brown. In her book Dare to Lead, Dr. Brown says, “Vulnerability is about leaning into rather walking away from the situations that make us feel uncertain, at risk, or emotionally exposed.”

Serving others in a meaningful way implies our willingness to connect with the other person. Connecting with others can and does make some feel uncertain, at risk, and emotionally exposed. Appropriately vulnerable leaders express authenticity, which creates genuine connection and leads to greater influence.

Connect to Character

A person’s character is shaped over time and encompasses our internalized beliefs and values in addition to our moral habits. We demonstrate strength of character when what we do enhances the wellbeing of others, according to Dr. Fred Kiel. In his book, Return on Character, Dr. Kiel writes, “Strong character leads to the integrated self—a joining of head and heart, where thoughts, feelings, and actions are in harmony, resulting in a behavior that demonstrates the character of an individual who walks the talk of his or her belief system.”

If you have been paying close attention, you will notice Dr. Kiel connects character to the harmony of thoughts, feelings, and actions, which is how we defined culture earlier. The culture of any organization is, therefore, the reflection of the character of the organization. Given the organization is made up of people, then it is safe to say the collective character of the people is the representative culture of the organization. Culture delivers results.

Character Matters

Leaders of strong character manifest an authentic-influence. For leaders caught in the trap of forced-authority, there is a way out: Strengthen your character. Dr. Kiel’s research gives us deep insight into the framework of character. He identifies four universal principles: Integrity, responsibility (I use the word accountability in place of responsibility, which I will unpack later), forgiveness, and compassion as the framework of a strong character.

Strengthening Integrity to Build Authentic-Influence

Few, if any, would admit to having no integrity. However, in my book, The Kingmaker, I introduced the idea of Situational-Integrity into the public conversation. “Situational-Integrity is allowing your integrity, living your life with honesty and a fixed set of moral principles, to shift based on the situation you are in with the sole intent to get what you desire.” The challenge we face in society today is not the complete void of integrity but the inconsistent, situational nature of the integrity being modeled for those we lead.

When our integrity becomes situational, we cease to be authentic and, in the process, lose our ability to have influence. Again, a leading indicator of forced-authority is when we lose our ability to influence.

Resetting your integrity doesn’t happen in an instant. It will require a deliberate focus to reestablish the foundation.  Your ability to change course and create an authentic integrity experience begins with self-awareness. Being self-aware is fueled by your willingness to become vulnerable with those you lead. Here are three simple steps to get your authentic-influence back on track.

1.     Be Authentic: Being the authentic you is not a license to be an unfiltered jerk. To be authentic is to ensure your words and deeds are aligned. Aligned words and deeds is the cornerstone of integrity. Additionally, the authentic person is grateful for what they have.  

2.     Be Compassionate: Being compassionate begins with a courageous generosity towards others. Being compassionate also includes your ability to be appropriately vulnerable with the people close to you.

3.     Be Clear: People want integrity but follow clarity. To regain your influence, you must be clear in the expectations you have for yourself and others going forward. Clarity comes from keeping your communication simple and focused.

tony bridwell