The idea that leadership is essentially hierarchal, and that influence can only flow down through an organisation is outdated. It can also limit the effectiveness of leaders and the performance of organisations. “Assuming that influence is the product of rank, status and title is fundamentally flawed, because organisations are not hierarchies,” explains Barry Bloch, Global Partner for Board and Executive Leadership.
“Organisations need structure for clarity and accountability, but these reporting lines are not the same as influence and they don't equate to change,” he continues. “When we challenge the purpose of hierarchy, we challenge people’s understanding of how to lead and influence effectively. We also allow leaders to focus on influencing across the lattice of an organisation, rather than up and down the organisational ladder.”
Here Barry considers the importance of influence for effective leadership, and how to influence outside the confines and constraints of hierarchy.
Influencing vs directing
Effective leadership requires leaders to have influence and to leverage the influence of others, which is a lot more complex than assuming people will simply do what you say. “Direction is almost never effective, yet as leaders there is often a misconception that this is our role,” says Barry.
“When leadership is primarily hierarchal there is a tendency to direct rather than influence, creating an environment where organisational performance and wellbeing both pay the price,” says Barry. “Except for in situations of crisis, directing rarely brings out the best in people as in the absence of genuine and effective influence we get overt compliance and covert resistance. Directing also overlooks the fact that the workforce is generally considered, considerate and capable of far greater autonomy than direction allows.”
“When people lead by directing instead of influencing, organisations are far more likely to encounter presenteeism; challenges around talent attraction, retention and employee morale; low levels of collaboration and innovation; poor decision making; and heightened conflict – all of which fundamentally lead to individual and organisational underperformance,” Barry continues.
Influencing across the organisational lattice
Experience and research have consistently found that in organisations, people tend to listen to and follow only a small number of others – people that Barry calls ‘viral infectors’ or ‘super-connectors. He estimates these viral infectors and super-connectors to be between 3 to 5% of the organisation which means that not all formal leaders have influence and not all influencers will be formal leaders. But with influence so hard to come by, how do you achieve it as a formal leader? Can you deliver on organisational change without it?
Knowing who and how to influence
Barry describes followership as the only true measure of leadership.
“Being an effective leader is not about stamping authority or drawing on status, title and hierarchy, but about how you relate to others and how others choose to relate to and follow you,” he says. “The real skill for effective leadership lies in knowing how to influence, and identifying and influencing the right influencers, the viral connectors and super connectors. The change that you need to achieve will determine who these influencers should be.”
“It’s also important to note that leadership is always contextual, individual and skills based, so the people that can influence in one organisation, may not be effective influencers in another,” he continues. “To be influential as a leader you need a genuine leadership identity, and a strong sense of who people will listen to and choose to follow within your organisation.”
Effective communication is an essential component of influence, but many leaders fail when they rely on communication flowing down through an organisation. Conversation surpasses all other forms of communication.
“When cascade communication replaces influence, you tend to see bottlenecks in management. This happens because information is power, which some leaders are afraid to share. But also, because open communication holds people to account, and if leaders don’t communicate, they believe they can abdicate leadership,” says Barry. “When communicating, leaders must also understand that influencing is about more than just the facts, the logic and the words that we choose to use when we communicate. It’s about how we act; the action that we take; the exchanges that we create; and the connections that we make.”
To lead effectively across the organisational lattice, leaders must be comfortable operating beyond process and procedure – something that entrepreneurs do well outside of an organisation and intrapreneurs do particularly well working within the framework of an existing organisation.
“Intrapreneurs are able to move beyond the traditional mechanistic and programmatic approach to leadership to go where the points of influence are, rather than relying on hierarchy,” says Barry. “Intrapreneurs often make influential leaders because they are hungry to achieve growth and change in the organisation, without being bureaucratically bound by the corporate concrete.”
Leading effectively across the lattice requires leaders to build and nurture relationships, because relationships are the single greatest lever for influencing and motivating others.
“In leadership, culture will always trump organisational structure, because culture is a product of relationships and interpersonal behaviour, which are the very foundation for achieving influence and change,” says Barry. “The starting point with all relationships is to genuinely want them because disingenuous relationships will always fail. Real relationships are also a product of endless conversations, making prioritising communication and connection key for building real relationships and achieving real influence.”