What Is the Key to Successful Leadership?

Valarie Willis

Q: I have always thought that the key to successful leadership is influence, not authority. Do you agree?

A: The answer to that question, it seems to me, lies in whether the goal is to get others to work from a place of compliance or from a place of commitment. I believe that is the difference between influential leadership and authoritative leadership. Working within an influential leadership model, committed employees will give up discretionary time to solve problems, serve customers, and think creatively. On the other hand, people working under authoritative leadership– or –command and control, as we more commonly know it will work to achieve compliance, doing only what needs to be done to get by.

It is well documented that organizations perform better when all employees work collaboratively across organizational lines, and are allowed to voice their opinions and have healthy open discussions. Leaders who are great at listening to diverse opinions and can facilitate teams in moving toward solutions–without 'telling' team members what to do–are leaders of influence that can create positive working environments, remove organizational obstacles, and provide tools employees need to perform their jobs effectively. Influential leaders create environments that are:

  • Trusting
  • Collaborative
  • Open
  • Sharing

In return, employees will use their talents and skills to achieve the mission and vision of the organization. This is especially true of younger workers coming into the workforce today who do not respond well to –command and control– leaders or to those who merely exert their authority. They want freedom and control over their areas of responsibility and to use their talents and skills to solve problems. Gen X and Gen Y are motivated through teamwork, with fewer rules and goals. What they don't want is to be micro- managed by a leader constantly telling them what to do and how to do it. Authoritative leaders who attempt to control the organization and the people who work in it will find that employees disengage and are less committed to helping the organization achieve its goals. Leading from a place of authority does not create the trusting environment required for success. Instead it often leads to second-guessing, potential hidden agendas, and a less productive workforce.

Effective leaders help people understand how their contributions fit into the broader vision and inspire the team to achieve the greater good of the organization. Inspiration is not mandated, dictated or driven by authority. It is achieved by enlisting others, touching the hearts of employees while engaging their brains–through the influence of leaders.

While authoritative leadership only has room for one leader, influential leadership allows the leader in everyone to be brought forward. In today's fast-paced, rapidly changing environment, everyone has to be a leader.

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