What gives a leader more power: authority or influence?
The truth is both authority and influence are a source of power, but they are very different types of power. While both can be used to facilitate getting things done, to motivate others to act, and even cause people to change their behavior, the fundamental difference between the two types of power lies in the nature of your relationship with others.
When you have authority, you have direct power over someone's future. This makes it hard to say no. In fact, when you make a request of someone from a position of authority, "Yes" is seen as the right choice because it brings positive outcomes. "No" is typically not considered as an option because "no" essentially equates to insubordination with potentially scary consequences for someone's personal future, be it their next performance review, salary increase and possibly even the status of their job.
When you are leading others from a position of authority, it is far too easy to forget that those you have authority over are as likely to act out of compliance as they are out of choice. And when you have authority, you hold someone else's future in your hand. That kind of power is not to be taken lightly. Nor should you assume that just because someone carries out your orders with commitment and positivity that this reflects your leadership ability. Consider that when those who report to you act with genuine commitment, it could say a lot more about who they are (and possibly your hiring decisions!) than your effectiveness as a leader.
However, keep in mind that power that comes from authority is not a bad thing. Leading with the power of authority can indeed help you more efficiently manage people and work. It creates clarity about who is in charge and who makes decisions which removes the ambiguity that can slow progress. It empowers leaders to execute on their accountabilities. But be clear that the power of authority empowers the person with authority and not those you lead.
Even when you have positional authority, influence remains the most potent source of power as a leader. And here's why...
Choice is the ultimate source of power for each of us as individuals. Influence is the act of empowering others to choose for the sake of your shared future (aka your company or departments mission), and for the sake of their personal future. When we influence people they feel truly empowered precisely because they get to choose. When people have a true choice to say "yes" or say "no" to you, you are putting power in their hands.
When you lead with authority you have power over others. When you lead with influence you empower others. And when you empower others you exponentiate your own power.
In working with clients, I often hear people who are charged with accountability without positional authority complain that it limits their ability to get things done. But what if this is actually an opportunity to learn how to access the most potent power of all – your influence.
Consider that the opportunity to take a leadership role without authority is the best training ground for developing your leadership skills. Why? Because authority can actually mask whether you are leading through the power of your authority or through your influence. Without direct authority over others, you must learn to influence others if you want to succeed. Of course, it can be helpful to "borrow" influence through the endorsement from someone with positional power, but your effectiveness in the day to day execution of your work will come down to your ability to empower others to contribute their skills and expertise and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Imagine your potential strength as a leader when you get to a position of authority after you have developed the ability to influence others?
As John Maxwell says: "Leadership is influence. Nothing more and nothing less."
So, the next time someone asks you to take the lead of something without a title or authority, take the opportunity. And use that opportunity to become the most powerful leader of all – a leader who empowers others through influence.