[webinar recap] leadership: authority vs. influence

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This month’s webinar featured a new presenter, Niel Nikolaisen, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at O.C. Tanner, and a new discussion-based format. Joining Niel in his quest to redefine leadership were two O.C. Tanner acolytes, Dana Rogers, Director of People Systems & Total Rewards, and Sandra Christensen, VP of Awards. Both leaders in their own right, Dana and Sandra were new to the webinar world, but eager to dive in.

The topic, leadership (authority vs. influence), is one near and dear to Niel’s heart. His unique perspective, honed over many years as a leader at multiple global organizations, is as forward thinking as the technology he oversees.

The crazy idea? That positional leadership is as antiquated as the typewriter.

Niel started things off with a recap of the importance of purpose, reminding everyone that a leader’s job is to identify the benefit to society, focus innovation on competitive advantage, deliver operational excellence, and create a great work culture.

He then pivoted to the topic at hand, influential authority vs. positional authority. Before reaching out his panelists for examples, he gave a quick rundown of the differences.

Positional authority is:


Manages change

Takes responsibility

Leads by decree

Influential authority is:


Embraces change

Gives responsibility

Leads by example

Turning to Sandra and Dana, Niel then asked them for their own definitions of influential authority. After a brief pause to consider, Sandra jumped in to say that, to her, influential authority comes from experience and expertise. Dana agreed, adding that an influential leader is one who gains followers without having positional authority. Someone that people follow not because they’re told, but because they choose to—because they believe in them. Niel’s response? That influential authority works without leveraging control and command, causing leaders to work and act differently. As a leader, you want your position to matter less and less, and have your influence matter more and more.

Jumping off the definitions of influential and positional authority, Niel asked the panel for examples of someone in their personal or work lives that they loved to follow, “What is the best leadership experience you’ve ever had?”

Without divulging specifics, Sandra and Dana talked about leaders they’ve worked with that were invested in their success, not just their own or even the organization’s. These were people whose initiative and approach mattered to them. They weren’t in it for the success. They carried the burden of risk on their backs so you could charge into battle behind them. Someone you believe in, who believes in you, too.

Niel then summed up the characteristics of great leaders. They trust you to do your job. They encourage but never demand. They are honest, authentic, and transparent. And their primary function is not to give orders, but to create the culture in which people work. Command and control works, but it doesn’t create a positive experience. That’s something we need to get away from if we’re going to bring leadership into the 21st century.

One of the keys to doing this is creating a culture of trust: giving true ownership to your team, not second guessing them or their decisions. But how do you achieve this, besides being trustworthy yourself? The answer: team-based metrics. Instead of measuring performance on an individual level, measure it on a team-wide basis. Don’t foster competition, foster collaboration.

Niel recounted a short story of a CEO he worked for who whenever something went wrong, he looked for someone to blame. It’s not hard to tell why this is the wrong approach to leadership, but Niel’s take on the solution is an essential part of leading through influential authority.

Don’t blame people. Blame process. You should assume people can perform their job error free unless the process fails them. Sandra chimed in to put a catchy turn on that idea: fix the problem, not the blame.

Niel then made a very candid admission: he is a recovering micro-manager.

How did he stop? By consulting the macro-leadership cube, a way to define the whats and whys of your team’s work without getting bogged down in the hows. Then all you have to do as a leader is make sure your team stays within their process, their culture, on their way to achieving their goals. Like a sheep dog tending their flock, you only have to step in when they overstep their boundaries.

Before ending the presentation, Niel assigned the audience some homework: to write down one thing they could do differently to improve or build a culture of trust, and one thing they could do to improve or build a culture of ownership. Why written down? Because the simple act of writing down your goals makes you more likely to achieve them.

With the presentation now ended, Niel, Sandra, and Dana turned to the live audience on WebEx to field questions. The first was short, but weighty: How do I make sure that my team makes the right decisions.

Niel took this one on, saying that this was as much a trust issue as a decision making issue. That this leader should focus on the idea of short iterations and early wins to empower their team. He was also very direct, saying that they should look at themselves and try to overcome their own hubris and learn to truly trust their team to do the right thing without help from their leader.

One of the best questions came late in the Q&A period, asking: How can I continue to motivate and encourage team members who are due to retire soon? Dana and Sandra tackled this one, talking from experience about focusing on purpose, legacy, mentorship, and the importance of passing on knowledge to younger team members before they leave.

Niel closed the webinar with an apt analogy for leading through influential authority: the symphony orchestra.

The conductor doesn’t know how to play every instrument, but they know how to bring them all together to create something beautiful and moving. Be a conductor.

Still curious about how leading through influence can improve your team? Listen to all the insights and discussion in the full webinar recording.

By andrew scarcella
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