What Every Leader Wants (and Better Have)

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When we think of leadership, we think of power, authority, and influence. We often assume these three traits are interchangeable, that they mean the same thing.

They don’t.

According to Merriam-Webster, those with “power” have the “ability to act or produce an effect.” In addition, the dictionary also says power may be a “legal or official authority, capacity, or right” that possesses “control, authority, or influence over others.” Despite this, don’t confuse “power” with either “authority” or “influence.” You can possess power without having either authority or influence.

How is this so?

Merriam-Webster fails to help here, as it defines “authority” as the “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.”

Nor does it provide much clarity with the word “influence.” The staid dictionary says “influence” is “the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways.”

Talk about circular reasoning. Is it possible to define these three manifestations of leadership without cross-referencing each other?

Perhaps not in a denotative sense. But, in a very practical sense, while they do overlap in some ways, each component embraces a unique – and significant – difference.

It wouldn’t surprise you to see these three elements as a series of increasingly smaller concentric circles. This reflects the common view that influence is a subset of authority, which in turn is a subset of power. Picture it in this manner: Anyone with power has authority, and anyone with authority has influence.

Are you comfortable with that image in your mind? Well, then, allow me to pull the rug out from under you.

The real world inverts those circles. In other words, you don’t need power to have authority and you don’t need authority to influence someone.

How can both images be correct? It all depends on your frame of reference. It also depends on how you view each of these three elements.

Before proceeding, it’s important you grasp why the distinction matters to you.

This isn’t some mere exercise in linguistic euphemism. Discovering the differences between power, authority, and influence can have a profound impact on your personal relationships, your career progression, and your overall life experience.

Seeing the interplay between power, authority, and influence provides you with the tools you will need as you forge into that unknown forest we like to call “the future.” Since you can’t predict what surprises may be in store for you, isn’t it best to be prepared knowing which tool is best used in any specific situation?

At the same time, this knowledge arms you with the weapons of perception needed to protect you from those who might otherwise try to take advantage of you. With the understanding of how to use power, authority, and influence for your own benefit, you’ll quickly recognize when someone else may be using those same strategies in a manner that may not be in your best interest.

Who are these others you’ll be interacting with? They can be your family. They can be your social friends. They can be your co-workers or anyone else you might have a professional relationship with (that includes the store clerk, the restaurant manager, or the supervisor you ask for on that customer service call you’ve been on hold with for the past twenty-five minutes).

Each of these individuals represent a barrier between where you are right now and where you want to be at some point. You require their assistance. This assistance can come in the form of help or it can come in the form of moving out of the way. Without these people taking the desired action, you likely won’t achieve your goal.

Ironically, they have the “power” to thwart your objective. Your first aim, therefore, is to nullify that power. Is it best to use your own power, authority, or influence to counter this opposing power?

As many no doubt have already guessed, the strategy you choose will depend on the precise nature of your condition. It may be that, in one case, a particular strategy will succeed in amazing fashion, while in another example it will fail miserably.

You will want to be able to discern the practical consequences of using either power, authority, or influence in any specific situation. To do this, you’ll first need to appreciate the subtle essence between each.

You can travel down the road to successful leadership much faster if you do.

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