Influence comes in many flavors: fame, quick-wittedness, smarts, sway, charm. Influence is a form of power over other people. It’s the ability to get other people to do things – everything from getting up from the table to standing down from a nuclear attack. It’s a social tool that can be used for good and most definitely for evil. Some of the world’s worst atrocities were carried out handily by bad leaders wielding enormous influence.
And influence has many sources. Rank is one – one’s rank in a company, in birth order, or in title. Someone the king or queen has dubbed ‘sir’ or ‘dame’ may find situations when they can ‘pull rank’ simply on the basis of that title. Money certainly affords influence in many situations usually without its mention. The owner of a sports league doesn’t need to be smart to be heard: they say their piece and it inherently carries weight. But personality can also affect influence: the ‘type A’ person is oftentimes heeded just by force of their will; friends often stand in awe at the ‘life of the party’ who can get energy flowing simply by walking in the door; likewise, in a planning meeting, the ‘sage’ can say nothing for an hour while others postulate round and round in circles and then utter a singular sentence that completely alters the group’s plan. Economic class, the number of degrees behind your name, physical appearance, race, place of origin, educational background – the list is endless of factors that can change how much influence we have over others.
But we tragically often misjudge how much influence we have over an individual, a group, or in a situation. I say tragic because we can get so much further when we have a right-sized understanding of the influence we actually have.
History is fraught with examples of folks who thought they had more influence than they did. But we don’t have to go to the history books: I’m sure you can think of your own examples. The parent who thinks a good scolding will convince their child not to smoke pot. The politician who grossly overestimates her popularity. The church that thinks covering their neighborhood with flyers about their upcoming Easter service will magically (or supernaturally) bring flocks to their doors. Or the bully who suddenly looks behind him and realize his buddies have deserted him. Exerting influence we don’t have is embarrassing, awkward, and can quickly remove our credibility. We persist only by ignorance, grandiosity, or denial. What ways have you been trying to exercise influence you don’t have?
Just as tragic, though, is not using influence we in fact do have. For good. For every outsized ego that can’t seem to reconcile itself to the reality that no one is responding to its rallying, there is a giant who has yet to discover their enormous clout among their peers.
Take my friend we’ll call Clarissa who found out one Christmas about a young mom in the neighborhood who had no money to buy gifts for her two kids. Clarissa was tight on funds herself but wanted to help this mom. She wondered if she got the word out to her friends if a few gifts per child could be gathered. She got on Facebook and asked for donations for the young mom in need. A week later, she called me and asked if I could help take the gifts that had collected on her doorstep to the young mom. Car-fulls. Barbie sets. Doll houses. A gift bicycle. Stuffed animals galore. There was enough merchandise to fill a whole room; I honestly didn’t know where this mom was going to put all this stuff in her little apartment. The mom was in tears. Clarissa herself was in shock. She had no idea how much response a quick note on a Facebook page could engender. She grossly underestimated her influence. She went on to sport a thriving food business out of her home capitalizing on her newfound influence.
What untapped influence do you have? In which social group or network do you have some ‘blue chips’ to play? Remember: influence can vary greatly depending on the audience and the setting. An artist may feel pretty useless organizing a soup kitchen team but commission them to create a centerpiece for the community center and they can inspire a whole town! In a similar manner, one could advocate for better road maintenance at the county level and it may fall flat on its face but coordinate a community clean-up and you could start a neighborhood movement! Meanwhile, there is many a spouse out there who is just waiting for their partner to wake up to their potential.
It’s important to discern the amount of influence you have and where its effect is broadest. We can accomplish much good in the world if we steward our influence well.
Take the time to right-size your influence. It will pay off handsomely.