Are You Trying Hard Enough to Influence People?

I attended a leadership conference several years ago, and two things I heard still stand out. One had to do with parenting; the other was one line:

Leadership is influence.

The reason that line was memorable is that the speaker, an executive from a large, well-known company, repeated it many times throughout his presentation. And every time I heard it, I found myself questioning whether or not he was right.

I grew up being a bit skeptical of my Dad’s job. He worked with people who wanted to improve their relationships, lead people, and influence. At the time, I considered those to be people who seemed to be trying too hard in these areas. They were, in my mind, too focused on climbing the social ladder. I preferred to be around people who were direct, with no hidden motivations.

I even asked my Dad, “Do you ever consider whether or not what you do for work is teaching people to manipulate others?”

His response: “You can use the tools to help others or for selfish gain. The question is, ‘What is your purpose?’”

Looking back on it now, I realize that I had a narrow definition of “trying hard” when it came to influence and leadership skills.

Air force planes2

What It Looks Like to Work at a Relationship

After graduation, one of my high school friends, Rob, went to the Air Force Academy. The day he left for Colorado, he gave all his friends sheets of address labels pre-filled with his new address, saying, “I really want to keep working on our friendship, even after I leave.”

Throughout college, he made a point to visit us at our schools—traveling for no other reason than to see us—and took the lead in regularly organizing “guys’ trips.” He frequently called and sent email, and he always asked a lot of questions. He would ask about my family members and new friends by name. Periodically, a letter or package would arrive in the mail with a news clipping or some other item he thought I’d find interesting.

He still does it. A few months ago, he sent me the Rolling Stone magazine issue dedicated to Tom Petty, because he knew I liked Petty.

How Hard Work Turns Into Influence

Rob has generally worked hard at relationships. He still visits his old teachers, coaches and friends. He’d be the first to tell you that he makes mistakes in his relationships, but many people really care about him.

About a year ago, he came to me with a request. He needed help on a research project for his PhD program at the university where he now teaches. I didn’t even think twice about responding and giving him full access to our resources.

After he completed the research, Rob sent me an abstract brief of the findings that was tailor written for me to be useful in my business. I couldn’t believe the effort he put into it. In fact, I’ve since referenced that research several times when speaking to groups.

Rob influences me greatly. He has led me to college campuses, conversation topics, camp fires and research projects. These places have had a productive impact on my life…because he tries hard. He works at it.

He’s also one of the reasons that I now understand my Dad’s point of view. Working for the right purpose isn’t manipulation; it’s leadership. Leadership is influence. And to influence, we have to work at it. Productive influence doesn’t usually flow without the effort to be focused on other people.

Which has left me with two questions:

How hard am I trying?

What is my purpose in it?



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1 Comment

  • Pat Griffin
    July 27, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Spot on, Matt! Our purpose defines whether or not influence is manipulation or leadership. One observation over a bit of time working on this myself and helping others with it is – those who are asking the question “Am I trying hard enough?” probably are, and the ones that aren’t (trying hard enough) don’t even consider the question. Thanks for the reminder of how simple concepts like this are also the ones that are challenging to execute on a consistent basis. I think it helps to occasionally give ourselves a little break by realizing we never get it perfect; and being a person who at least tries in spite of our imperfection is far better than not making the effort.