Learning to lead through influence, not dominance.
So often leadership is confused with hierarchy — a structure which suggests there is scarcity at the top. To progress up, someone must come down. It’s an industrial mindset, and when applied to leadership it is simply not true.
We see these power struggles every day. Struggles for status to determine who will speak first, and more importantly who will speak last (aka the final say).
Often the outcomes of these interactions are mistaken for influence, but more commonly they are determined by dominance. The person who spoke the loudest, who pushed the hardest, who ‘pulled-rank’ when they were tired of pretending they wanted collaboration when ultimately they wanted consensus.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, but it is neither sustainable nor respectable and there are many leaders shining the light on a better way.
Gaining influence through empowerment.
The greatest leaders I’ve ever worked with have never relied on dominance to gain influence — instead they’ve been willing to dance with it.
They’ve encouraged those around them to take turns. To take the lead and feel what it would be like to take responsibility and determine the next step.
They’ve provided the perimeters, but within those boundaries they encouraged us to explore the edges. To bring our creativity, our imagination, and to try things that have never been done before, always eager to help us should we ever lose our way.
When a leader has done this fully, never once did I lose sight of the fact that they were ultimately in charge (a fear that holds back many managers from fully committing to this approach). Instead, through their trust and generosity, I felt I was seen, I was heard, I mattered, I was valued, and ultimately I capable of more than I had ever imagined.
I felt this not because they protected me from any harm, but on the contrary because they did not hide me from the burden of power and responsibility that comes with being a leader. They pushed me to embrace it, to explore how I might do it differently, to discover my own style, and most importantly — to own it.
For the weak manager, this shift of status represents a risk that is far too great for them to consider. The passing of power risks the loss of influence, the reduction of their relevance presents a threat to their hierarchical style of leadership.
For the great leader, however, this presents the chance to create more leaders. They do not fear that they will lose their role, but rather they play the role their team needs them to play, demonstrating their versatility and ability to adapt and only stepping in as the team requires.
Learning which role your team needs you to play.
Kantor explores the way people engage in discussions when making decisions, and asserts that ‘every conversation is made up of individual acts of speech: statements and questions…and that every speech can take four types of actions (to move, oppose, follow, or bystand).’
Kantor provides an example of how these roles might interact in an every day meeting.
Move: Initiate and provide direction (“We need to spend less time in these meetings.”)
Follow: Support and provide completion (“Yes, I’ve been concerned about the same thing.”)
Oppose: Challenge and provide correction (“I don’t think that’s right. We need time to cover every topic on the agenda.”)
Bystand: Observe and provide perspective (“Ian wants shorter meetings, Ralph wants to keep them the same length. What does everybody else think?”)
Now this is only the very beginning of a far more complex set of Kantor’s theories, but even upon discovering these action stances, I immediately began to realise how often my initial tendency is to either to ‘move’ or ‘oppose’.
Ask yourself: What would change if i changed?
I began to wonder what would change if I changed the role I play?
How would the environment change if I became the bystander?
How would someone else’s perspective change if they had the chance to become the ‘mover’ or the ‘follower’, and how might this help us build a stronger team and see us grow as a group of emerging leaders?
It was such an intriguing concept, but also daunting, as in many ways these behaviours feel like they’re part of my identity. Could I change a set of behaviours that felt so deeply ingrained?
Learning to lead with intention.
What I realised is the greatest leaders do not rely on playing the role that feels most natural, but rather lead with intention and shift their stance as is needed by their team.
They shift effortlessly through each stance, and demonstrate the posture that should be taken when assuming each role, providing powerful examples for others to follow, full of generosity and empathy, and those behaviours that are so often classic indicators of character and culture.
It is this intentional leadership which I’m sure at times I’ve underestimated, and which I’m so eager to explore with greater rigour.
It requires deep introspection and self reflection, and the courage to know when you’re part of the problem.
For some it will mean resisting the urge to speak first, for others the need to stop stealing those moments of revelation, for ALL it requires the need to recognise that it is only through acts of generosity and trust that we can expect to build both in return.
So as I embark on this new challenge I encourage you to ask yourself these questions:
How might I become a better leader if I had the courage to play another role?
More importantly how might I develop better leaders if I was willing to play the role the team needs me to play?
Finally, what would I have to give up to make this change, and am I willing to start today?
I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered and if you’re ready to take that next leap with me.
Thank you for taking the time to read this piece, and I hope you’ll connect and let me be part of your journey.