Developing Influential Leadership

Brad Morgan
Director, Bettye B. Lewis Career Center
University of Tennessee College of Law

Often, contemplation of the idea of “leaders” or “leadership” conjures up images of the highly visible. The CEO of the corporation. The managing partner of the law firm. The director of the business unit.

Most of us are not CEOs.

Most of us are not managing partners.

Most of us are not directors of the business unit.

To the extent that those of us non-CEOs, non-managing partners, and non-directors, excuse ourselves from the opportunity and obligation to lead, we do ourselves—and others—a disservice.
Sure, CEOs, managers, directors and [insert any other title here] may have the positional authority that others in the organization do not possess. That’s very true. However, positional authority and influential authority are two very different ideas. Anyone can possess influential authority—even those that are at the very bottom of the organizational chart and/or those who are new to an organization (yes, that includes you newly minted attorneys).

Both the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review—among other notable publications—have increasingly focused on the importance of influential authority. “Having influence in the workplace has ‘clear value[.]’ You get more done and you advance the projects you care about and are responsible for, which means you’re more likely to be noticed, get promoted, and receive raises.” (How to Increase Your Influence at Work, Rebecca Knight, HBR February 2018).

And so, if you are in the group of folks that would like to “get more done,” “advance the projects you care about,” “be noticed,” “get promoted,” and “receive raises,” there is good news: developing influential authority (or more influential authority) is within your reach. Here are three concrete tips to move you along the influential authority continuum:

Build Internal Connections and Networks: This is not about being the “the awesome-est person in the room.” The focus here should be on developing good rapport with your colleagues. A key way to do this is to demonstrate that you value others and their thoughts by listening. Almost all of us (ok, more likely all of us) walk around with a running to-do list in our minds; we are constantly thinking about what we need to get done to get to the next item on our list. And it often shows. We need to “practice the discipline of focus.” We can do this by facing others, turning our bodies toward them, freeze, and really listen.

Develop Expertise: Another way to increase your influence at work is to be seen as a recognized expert within your industry or organization. This can—and does—take time. But it’s worth the effort. Are you a lawyer with expertise on motions in limine? Are you a manager with an expertise in calming frustrated coworkers? Do you ask the right questions to help others see all the angles? Be known for a specific value-add.

Help Your Coworkers: Although helping others is not traditionally seen as a path to gaining power, it can motivate others to embrace you as a role model and an integral part of the team.

These three items do not, of course, represent the entire universe of steps to take if one seeks to cultivate influential authority. But these three items are critical and represent steps that you can take today.

In addition to the dos, it’s useful to avoid behaviors that can detract from one’s influential authority. Again, here are three concrete items that we allow—far too often—into how we interact with others:

Don’t Brag: Many people wrongly assume boasting about past accomplishments will make colleagues on a new job want to work with them. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, “[i]n fact, talking about your past record is ‘almost a death knell for credibility’ because it fosters mistrust, suggesting you care more about promoting yourself than getting in sync with your new colleagues and their needs[.]”

Don’t Slouch: Countless studies have demonstrated that standing up straight with your shoulders back helps you come across as confident and commanding.

Don’t Use “I” Too Much: Use language that demonstrates your focus on the team, the organization, the client. Others see value when they are included.

Influencing others is a critical part to succeeding in an organization, and demonstrating effective leadership. These concrete steps will help you develop more influential authority in your organizations, whether you are a brand new lawyer, a seasoned manager, or a tenured executive. Commit today to add—or improve—at least one of these items in your leadership toolbox, and you and your organization will certainly be rewarded for your efforts.

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