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How Leaders, in Politics and Business, Use Influence Instead of Power


One of the ironies about being a leader is that you sometimes wield a lot less power than people think. Even a job as lofty (when done right) as president of the United States is seen as powerful, but really isn’t. Sure, at debates, like last night’s great one in Milwaukee, candidates are always asked questions that begin with, “As president, will you...” but we all know that presidents alone can’t really do anything but put their socks on or, in more recent years, play a lot of . To get things done, you need to wrangle disparate interests, build a team and use influence to literally cajole people into your camp. Once you get the job, the campaigning never stops. You’re just speaking to a different constituency.

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It’s a good reminder that, when picking a president, you need to look for someone who not only has , but who can build a team and work with competing factions to push them through. Think about the word “president.” It comes (as all good words) from the Latin praesidere. That literally means to sit in front of something. It is a passive word, almost with a voyeuristic feel. You watch. You (too rarely in most people) listen. You preside, watching as others in front of you do the work you set in motion.

You’re in no way helpless, but you certainly don't have absolute power. In the U.S., this is especially true. You can offer a great tax plan, but needs to make that a law. And that takes getting not one but two houses of Congress to agree on something. Even if, like the current occupant of the , you want to bypass the Constitutional system by issuing executive orders, you have the court system to tell you that’s not how we do things in the U.S. of A.

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So political plans are really just a guidepost, and it's why campaign promises are usually so empty. There is no magic wand -- by the intelligent design of our Founders -- to wave your policies into existence.

That means you need to vote based on good, old-fashioned qualities. You need to find someone whose philosophy you can embrace, yes, but there needs to be something more. You need someone who understands the limitations inherent in power, and chooses to view his or her leadership role as one of influence. Influence is a derivative of power, and it can be wielded more easily and with greater effect. We aren't talking about simple charisma. We are talking about being the kind of leader who can sit down, engage and get buy-in, who can take the authority of the position and use it to work with others to get things done.

Team-building and culture play immeasurable roles here. I've had the honor to know people who worked in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. You couldn't have a greater contrast, even though both came from the same party, and had a good deal of overlap in personnel. Nixon's White House was notoriously paranoid -- one man once described it to me as a "pirate ship," with knives out against one another and a general position of distrust of everyone and everything outside of it. Reagan ran his team differently. My favorite management quote of his was, "Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority and don't interfere." 

Interestingly, both Nixon and Reagan had an indisputable source of power -- the electorate. We think a lot about Nixon's downfall in the wake of Watergate, but few recall he won the job by commanding electoral landslides (and even beat John F. Kennedy in the popular vote back in 1960). Reagan's complete victories are better remembered. In both cases, Nixon and Reagan came to office with unambiguous support of the people, which is a power base hard to contradict. But only Reagan used that to wield influence rather than power, and the results showed. 

It's why I've always admired the administrations of and . Neither came to office with any kind of mandate. Clinton never had a majority of the electorate voting for him, and Bush's election needed a Supreme Court ruling to certify it. Yet, both served two terms and were able to assemble teams and bring on influencers around them to to through their own agendas. Without clear mandates and bases of power, each built coalitions made up of philosophical rivals and, together, influenced decisions, with Clinton's successes being domestic and Bush's mostly overseas. 

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There are lessons here in boardrooms and executive suites as well. No CEO has absolute power. Not a single one. In a time when we glorify someone like Steve Jobs, we forget that his influence came from the customers, who bought his products in droves at the end of his career. When Apple was turning out crappy devices, Jobs was shown the door. He was the same person, in the same job, but with different sources of power and authority, a kind of Grover Cleveland of technology.

CEOs, and management of all kinds, have to take their base of power -- the loyalty of a team, a strong stable of customers, the trust of a good chunk of investors -- and convert that base into influence to put through policies. It may not be a whistle-stop tour to the corner office, but business success takes a lot of effective office politicking.

And, here, you see the real skill: recognizing from where your power derives. is an important skill for leadership, and the most self-aware realize that the confidence they have in their own knowledge and abilities has to be measured against a humility to know that we are all accountable to someone: boards, managers, employees, customers, investors, G-d, our mothers. Knowing to whom you are accountable, developing that buy-in and leveraging that to make enlightened, effective decisions is the formula that drives leadership.

And, yes, in politics and in business, it is often elusive, possibly utopian. But it's what we should strive for, for both ourselves and the people we elect and hold accountable to serve us. We all should be willing to lead our leaders to this ideal.

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