Influential Relationships

Who was the best leader you ever had? What made that person a great leader for you?

If you are like most people, you did not name the smartest person you know or the person with the best logic. You may respect those people, but you probably named a leader who inspired you or who touched you emotionally. Their emotions resonated somehow with your own, creating energy that fueled efforts and accomplishments of which you are now proud. Their leadership, and its attendant emotional resonance with you, helped you find and use parts of yourself in ways that may have made a difference in your life.

Do you aspire to lead? As your own experience teaches you, if you aspire to lead, you must learn how to create constructive emotional connections between you and those whom you would like to have follow you.

Leadership comes into play when you want to accomplish something that cannot be done on your own. Maybe you have a vision for your business, department, church, government, or some other organization that matters to you. But the scope of the work requires that you influence others to help you. The human capacity for influence through constructive emotional contagion between leaders and followers is what allows people to join together to accomplish something larger than themselves.

Manipulation is not leadership: There are lots of ways to influence people. Some methods of influence are pure manipulation, i.e., they involve tricking people into doing things that may not be in their best interest. It is unlikely that you identified someone as your greatest leader whom you discovered to be manipulative. Manipulation is like sugar – its energy burns out pretty fast. (Not to mention that the ethics are sleazy at best.)

Authentic Relationships: The most effective leadership is based on an authentic relationship. Such relationships, based on mutual honesty and mutual interest, are the antithesis of manipulation. When Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, everyone knew that he was attempting to influence them. He was authentic, and appealed, in a deeply emotional way, to the mutual interests of himself and all who listened to him. Listeners could then make their own judgments about whether this was a man they wanted to follow and why.

When people dream of leading, many picture themselves standing at the bully pulpit being cheered by an adoring crowd. As King and others have shown, there is a time and place for that heroic posture. However, few of us will have that kind of leadership opportunity. Fortunately, there are many ways leaders can exercise constructive influence. The most powerful leadership technique may be simple listening. Everyday leadership usually begins with our ears, not our mouth.

Assume that you want to influence people to work with you. You want to influence their behavior. Many leaders fail because in their attempts to influence behavior they focus on, well, behavior. That is an insufficient approach, because as regular readers of this column know, behavior is driven by thoughts and feelings. If you want to influence someone’s behavior, you must influence the thoughts and feelings associated with the behavior in question. How do you know about thoughts and feelings? You listen. Only then will you know how to help followers adjust their thoughts and feelings, if necessary, to be aligned with what you want them to do.

For example, I coach a dentist in another state. He has a problem with his receptionist, a talented young woman who performs many duties well. He wants her to make follow-up calls to his patients who need further dental work but have not made appointments. He has asked her several times to do this and several times she has promised faithfully to do so. But she has not. She is full of excuses. None of them are relevant.

The dentist stopped to listen to her experience in trying to make the few calls she had attempted. Her poor success in getting people to come in made her think that this task was beyond her. Further, she felt uncomfortable making these calls. She had the misperception that she was supposed to manipulate people into an appointment that they did not want. Finally, she was unhappy that when she had made calls, many of them had been to wrong numbers.

Armed with this information, the dentist could lead. First he helped her understand the clinical significance of the services to be offered, i.e., how people would suffer unnecessarily if they did not get the work done. This new understanding helped her get past her discomfort that she was doing something not in a patient’s best interest. Second, he arranged for one of his senior office staff to train the receptionist on how to make these calls, i.e., how to help patients see the potential benefits of the services offered without using intrusive pressure. Third, he discovered that office procedures had grown lax about updating patient phone numbers, meaning that the receptionist wasted time with fruitless calls. It was relatively easy to adjust the office procedures to get updated phone numbers.

This dentist’s leadership approach left the receptionist feeling heard. Feeling heard often unleashes phenomenal energy. People don’t really need to get their way – usually. They just need to know that their thoughts and feelings matter. Once they feel that this is so, i.e., once they feel heard, their receptivity to the leader’s ideas, quite often, opens wide.

Want to lead? Learn to create emotional resonance between yourself and those whom you hope will follow you. One effective approach is to listen to thoughts and feelings that people have about their job.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founde rand CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies solve problems and build skills. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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