October 27, 2014

Person of Authority versus Influence

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Who has influenced your life more—Warren Harding or Max Talmey?


If either of those names sounds familiar, it’s probably Harding. He was the 29th president of the United States, born in 1865. He was the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world and commander in chief over an army that had just proved victorious in World War One.  Talmey, born four years after Harding, was a Polish ophthalmologist.

But Talmey did have lunch every week with good friends and became a mentor to their 12-year-old son, Albert.  It was Talmey who, to a large degree, opened Albert Einstein’s (oh, did I forget to mention his last name?) eyes to scientific discovery and exploration.

So I’ll ask again, who influenced your life more…Warren Harding or Max Talmey?

Influence vs. Authority


At any given moment, there are three possibilities. You can be:

  1. A person with authority without influence
  2. A person with influence without authority
  3. A person with authority and influence


Authority is the right or power to command thought, opinion, or behavior.  Think wider than the traditional vehicles of the law, judges, and other formal robes of authority. Most of us carry some kind of sphere of authority over some kind of resources or decisions. If anyone reports to you, they are under your authority.

Influence, on the other hand, is the act of producing an effect without direct exercise of command. It’s the sway of persuasion of one person over another person, organization, or community. As a general rule, we all also have some kind of potential influence in play.

People of authority have titles. People of influence have impact.

Your entire organization could be mapped against the following grid. And most of your organization will be listed in both columns. I can influence up, down, across, and out even in the regions where I don’t have line authority.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 10.24.19 AM

Learning to toggle between these two columns is crucial for healthy, effective organizations.

In this blog post I am not trying to emphasize the downside of the authority hungry leader or show that influence is always greater than authority. I think most leaders of substance know that. I am trying to show a fresh angle on how to invite collaboration and great team strength.

People of Authority


  1. Are you approachable to those “outside” your chain of reporting?
  2. Are you known as a great listener who is hungry for insights, regardless of their origin?
  3. Do you lead with humility and confidence in a beautiful blend?
  4. Are you a good decision maker?


Having the title and authority gives us the chance to prove we are worth following. But we still have to prove it with our influence.

People of Influence

Robert Cialdini wrote the seminal book on this topic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He identified six principles of influence, some of which are as basic as:

  • Liking—People are impacted by people they like. So make friends.
  • Social Proof—There’s a tipping effect. If some people are on board with your idea, others will follow, so start by influencing a couple of friends. Don’t worry about influencing everyone right at first.


Influence starts with bringing a consistent message and doing it in such a way that people will listen, take steps in that direction, and move others to do the same. Cialdini wrote, “Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.”

As the “influential” Booker T. Washington said, “There is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple, and useful life.”

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