Leadership is influence!


In the current VUCA-driven knowledge worker environment, the ability to communicate knowledge and expertise is more important than the ability to consume knowledge. Leadership at all levels is defined by a simple fact. How well can you influence a team of people across a series of roles and functions to meet personal, team, or organisational objectives?

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When does the ability to influence become more crucial?

  • Transformational decisions or seismic change in strategy – The Board and extended stakeholders are not satisfied with the top man trotting out a “by the numbers” goal and approach. Moonshots are inspirational and visionary that will be achieved only by ensuring people dream the same dream as you.
  • Making difficult decisions: Making change happen is often a crucial determinant for corporate success; bigger the change, bigger is the need for influence.
  • Overcoming entrenched habits – ensuring there is a renaissance of sorts within the organisation to overturn established norms
  • Standing up to a crowd – To stand against the might of “group think”, one must need to influence select stakeholders to keep it an even fight.
  • Nonexistent or delayed feedback – when results of decisions/actions are visible after a long time, the fuel required for sustenance and holding course emerges from the leader’s ability to influence. For example, sustainability as a business agenda.

We are often unaware of the many biases and prejudices that influence our social judgments. Psychologists call these “bias blind spots”. We can overcome many of these subliminal biases by teaching ourselves to be aware of them.

A 2007 study highlights two of the most common unconscious social judgment biases. Prof. Emily Pronin of Princeton University showed study participants one of the two pictures of the same man whom she introduced as an investment broker. One picture showed a suited man with a highly regarded Cornell degree, and the other showed the man in casual clothing with a degree from a nondescript college. The professor asked her participants how much of a theoretical $1,000 they would invest in each. The participants rated the suited man as more competent: on average, he got $535 on without having his background checked. In contrast, the casual dresser received just $352. Not only were the participants more likely to have the second broker’s credentials verified, but also they did not consider him as trustworthy. This is due to the “Halo Effect”, which is captured when a person is judged positively based on one aspect is automatically judged negatively on other aspects without much evidence.

As much as one would like to be evaluated based on who you actually are and what you do, due to “thin slicing” and various cognitive biases at play, your reputation is based on what other’s perception. One of the best ways to beat the Halo effect is to achieve “Likeability” and “sameness”.


How can a leader emerge as a likeable person to begin with? Firstly, Jerks don’t influence well, though a prickly demeanor might not be a huge challenge for some visionary leaders. The idea is not to make influencing a tougher job than it is.

The Middle French root is comportement, “Bearing or behaviour”, from the Latin Comportare “to bring together or collect”. The bearing of a person clearly affects the “Personal brand experience” of that Leader. Facial countenance, appearance, and approach are very important factors that influence comportement.

I am often surprised at how Enterprise Heads manage by walking around without a smile. A smile is an extremely important gesture that allows people to open up, approach, and interact. A business head without a sense of humor will not be a great person to work with. Whatever can be said about the culture at Amazon, enough has been said about the booming laughter of Jeff Bezos or the crinkly smile of Richard Branson. If you don’t believe smiling is useful, try these questions:

Do you like doing business with grumpy people?

Do you know anyone who does?

Do you think grumpy people get what they want?

At the same time, beware of the fake smile or the “Pan American” smile, which is named after the friendly but forced smiles of flight attendants on Pan American airlines. A fake smile uses only the zygomatic major muscle – the one that runs from your jaw to the corner of your mouth, it is easy to control this muscle and this leads to the fake smile. A great smile uses the orbicularis occuli muscle too. This muscle surrounds your eyes and makes you squint and produces crow’s feet – the Duchenne smile in honor of Guillame Duchenne a French neurologist. So, when you meet people, think pleasant thoughts and smile wholeheartedly.


Dress in line with the image you want to portray. Over dressing conveys a message ‘I am richer, more powerful and important than you’, in case of under dressing it is ‘I don’t’ care’. In case of equal dressing it is, ‘We are peers’ thus emphasizing “sameness”, a theme we will explore in detail with all the practices listed below; Sameness gets you the same result as the Halo effect! The CEO of an advertising agency and the CEO of a Bank can hardly be expected to dress alike. When you are adult supervision, you can’t wear jeans to “blend in”. Apparently, when Former Apple CEO John Sculley would wear jeans to work, employees never felt he was “one of the boys”. Maybe, he should have just stuck with the adult supervision look of a suit. When in doubt, ask what’s the norm internally – this also means you are smart enough to ask and flexible enough to listen. The goal is to achieve likeability, not superiority and not “make a statement” and try to show your taste and money. One of my trainees had a habit of wearing ill-fitting suits and his manager, an American, mentioned this in our confidential feedback session. So, I worked with the trainer asking if there was someone senior he could model himself on and how they showed up at work and this was an insight for him. He went on to address a small but crucial detail in his presence.


I have had CXO’s with “cold fish” handshakes that would leave you with a very dismal first impression and didn’t exactly help them in creating the right environment for a first impression.

According to a poll taken by Chevrolet Europe, more than 70 percent of people said they lacked confidence when it came to shaking hands. Chevrolet Europe even went so far as to commission Professor Geoffrey Beattie, head of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester, to create a formula for the “perfect handshake” in preparation for a handshake training guide they were developing. The study looked at eye contact, verbal greeting, Duchenne smile (smiling with eyes and mouth), and completeness of grip, dryness of hand, strength, hand position, vigour, temperature and texture of hands, control and duration of handshake.

Get close

Are the people you like the ones you keep seeing all the time? Maybe the fact you see them most of the time is the reason you’ve come to like them, this is called the “proximity bias”. Close proximity and frequent contact enables your relationship to move from acquaintance to friend due to causal and spontaneous encounters. In advertising parlance, it is called “OTS” – “Opportunity to see”. As a leader, you need to increase opportunities to be seen, to influence! In today’s connected and virtual/digital environments, sustaining a relationship is possible, but to create relationships, pressing flesh is really important. Zappos turned the employee exits and entrances at its Las Vegas building into emergency-only exits, so people bump into each other at the main entrance. The Brafman brothers, in their book – “Click-The magic of instant connections” ‑ sums up the principle in this way “The single most important factor in determining whether or not you connect with another person is neither personality nor mutual interests – it is simple proximity. Influencing by walking around is very important for today’s leader.

Find shared passions:

I was at a conference preparing to get on stage when I heard the previous speaker end with these lines “What makes you an interesting person?” I thought it was a remarkably astute question. Whatever you are passionate about can’t be hidden, it is like hiding your light under a bushel. In a similar vein – find someone else’s passions and if the two meet, there is combustion. As a famous comedian said “I haven’t met anyone that I could not like” implying that the choice of liking or not always rested with us. Everyone has passions, it is up to the leader to find out. Start with the assumption that there are shared passions, if you look hard enough, you will find them. A good leader does his homework – being interested in someone else’s story is the best way to figure in theirs.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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