by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” —Lao Tzu

Seasoned leaders may have contemplated the answer to this question before.  For the new leader, it may be a puzzling one. Some assume that people will automatically follow when they have a leadership position. Most people will follow a positional leader, but will do just enough to be compliant.  If you’ve tried to change the behavior of someone, you probably experienced how difficult this could be and seldom successful.  I don’t think that one person can change another unless it is by association.  

Leadership is influence. —John C. Maxwell

When you are implementing change, the ability to lead and influence people to follow is essential.  It is vital to acknowledge that people need to buy into their leadership for the leader to be effective.  Trust and respect are at the foundation of leadership and essential transformation.  

I spent approximately two decades leading transformations.  With a few exceptions, I found that people want to improve their situation.  Many like to take advantage of the opportunities offered. Some choose to live by default.  That choice might be due to the circumstances that they face or perhaps a low level of awareness of what is possible for them.  Each person must choose to embrace their journey.  In that sense, they elect to change and are not necessarily being changed.  

They say that you become the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. We have seen this many times and may have heard a version of this from our parents.  Thinking back, many of the destructive habits that I saw in people I knew had to do with the company they kept. In the same way, it works for positive habits.  This is true in a work environment also.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

—John Maxwell

The leader can set the tone for a culture of growth, development, and high performance. The leader can create opportunities, but it is still up to each person to accept or reject them.  The leader can help people see the possibilities, which may help them believe that they can achieve more. These are just a few of the things that the leader can do to move things along.

Of course, personality types play a role in the adoption of change.  People process information differently.  The people who are openly willing to adopt change will help create energy about doing things differently, especially if they see success.  A supportive leader can reinforce the choice to change.  The leader needs to design the environment.  

It is easier to change and thrive in an environment that breathes collaboration and support.  Creating the right culture can help the leader reinforce the changes that are needed.  And while not directly changing anyone, he or she is enabling the right environment for change.  

Creating the right environment for change requires a leader that intentionally model the behavior that will ultimately impact the culture of the organization.  Indirectly, the leader can influence the team to change.  It is not manipulation when you lead by example and put the interests of the people first.  When the leader models behavior that drives each person to adjust their behavior and performance, they have gained influence and permission to lead them.

Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. —Sam Walton

As I mentioned before, the company that we keep influences the way we act.  Developing a culture of collaboration, support, and growth, will affect those in the environment.  Leaders seeking to implement change must first work on increasing their influence with the people they lead.  They need to connect with each individual and develop a relationship of trust.  

To conclude, it is possible to influence others to change, but the decision is still with each person.  The inability to change others is one of the things that add complexity to a transformation process.  Leaders should understand that influence is a critical skill to be effective.  Influence skills make the leader “a leader”.

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