January 8, 2019

Influence and Authority – Two Paths to Great Leadership Outcomes

How do you make things happen in the workplace?

Do you make a decision and direct others to implement it?  Or do you make the case for what you think is important but compromise or lean on others to work things out?

Both approaches are useful and have value.  The right approach is dependent on numerous factors, especially the kind of power you have, and how, exactly, you intend to wield it.


I use two lenses for thinking about this:  Hard power and soft power.  Hard power is rooted in authority.  It is about telling someone else what to do.  In a position of leadership, with executive instrumentality (i.e., the ability to deploy resources), you have this power.

Imagine you are leading one of two countries at odds with one another.  One option might be to deploy military force as a way of changing the situation on the ground.  This is an authoritative power move.  Sometimes necessary, perhaps, and maybe effective on some levels.  But it potentially carries unforeseen consequences.

In the workplace, this can take various forms.  Imagine that you are leading two subordinates in a dispute over how to complete a project.  You hear ideas from both sides and choose one, instructing both to act on it.  This is using authority, and it may very well get the job done.  It may also have unforeseen consequences.

Authority is based in hierarchical power.  It is dependent on those affected by it buying into the power structure.  It also means the decision maker is on the hook for the outcome.


The soft power side of this coin is influence.  The great thing about influence is that even if you are not in a position of leadership, and even if you lack resources to deploy, you can still leverage influence.  But leaders, too, benefit from using this tool.

This is about being able to persuade others to see your perspective.  It’s often about flexing negotiation skills and maybe compromising.  There is less concern about who gets credit for an outcome or who has the power and more focus on collaboration.

Let’s return to our examples for a moment.  For the two countries locked in disagreement, influence might involve sending in diplomats to negotiate an agreement.  That’s direct influence.  In contrast, they might take an indirect influence approach and engage a third country to act as mediator.  In either case, it’s likely both countries will get some but not all of what they want.

In the workplace, you could try a direct approach and sit down to hash out a solution (more on planning for critical conversations here).  Or, again, engage a third party.  Even the boss could exert influence in this scenario by hearing both sides and nudging everyone toward compromise, rather than issuing a verdict.

Using the right kind of power

The magic of leadership is understanding authority and influence, and then using each appropriately.  There are times when the stakes are high and a decision simply must be made.  When you are caring for a child and that child runs toward a busy street, the only answer is authority.  At work, it might be a public relations or financial crisis.  You simply must act.

But sometimes authority comes across as rash and heavy-handed.  And it might not get you the best outcome.  Revisiting the military example above, war leaves scars on an entire generation of people.  Consequences can take decades to become apparent.  In the workplace, memories are long, and grudges have their own kind of power.

Leadership is about using influence where you can and authority where you must.  But no one is born with this kind of understanding.  You must hone it over time.  You will stumble.  We all do, but it will get easier.

How do you use authority and influence?

Are there times when you have seen authority used well (or not well)?  How about influence?

Last updated January 8, 2019