Administration & Leadership

Leading by Influence, Not Authority

Administrators can be more effective when they focus on ways to help staff rather than ways to force compliance.

June 17, 2024
kali9 / iStock

As assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in New Bedford Public Schools, I set a goal to visit a school every day. Most days, I am in many schools. Often, when school leaders or teachers see a central office administrator walk in, it’s to check up on them. That is not my goal. I want to be a school admin to strengthen and collaborate with leaders and educators, see learning in action, and be part of the work.

The more I learn about a school, the staff, and the students, the more impactful I can be. Being present is key to fostering trust that, in turn, builds a healthy partnership. As assistant superintendent and previously as a building principal, I wanted educators to get to know me and understand the vision I was promoting, which would help me build leadership through developing trust and strong professional relationships. However, that wasn’t the case in my first year as a principal.

Finding a Better Way to Lead

In my early years as a principal, I often led with authority and used the “boss card,” which was ineffective. Using my positional power was more about my own insecurity than about impact. So I thought about the phrase a colleague shared, “lead by influence,” which stuck with me because that’s where leaders gain the most traction. Influence over authority.

Leading with authority involves exerting control and making decisions based on the power vested in a particular role or position within an organization. In this approach, leaders rely on their formal authority, such as their title, rank, or position in the hierarchy, to direct and control the actions of others. It often entails giving directives, enforcing them, and making decisions unilaterally, with little input from staff.

This type of leadership often emphasizes compliance and obedience to established protocols and procedures. Rewards and punishments (author Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, uses the age-old metaphor “carrots and sticks”) may be used to motivate behavior and maintain order within the district or school. While leading by authority can be practical in certain situations, such as emergencies or when quick decisions are required, it can also lead to resentment, resistance, and disengagement among staff members if not exercised judiciously.

Leading by influence means guiding and inspiring others through your actions, ideas, and values rather than relying solely on authority or position. It involves building strong relationships, credibility, and trust so others will willingly follow your lead. Influence-based leadership focuses on persuasion, collaboration, and empowerment rather than giving orders or enforcing compliance. This approach often results in more sustainable and meaningful change by engaging people’s intrinsic motivation and commitment rather than just their obedience.

9 Practical Strategies for Leading by Influence

1. Be visible. Visibility in a school is crucial for a leader because it builds trust, fosters relationships, and enhances communication with students, staff, and parents. It demonstrates commitment, allows for real-time problem-solving, and promotes a positive school culture. Being present and approachable ensures a supportive and effective learning environment. Leaders can be visible by regularly visiting classrooms, attending school events, engaging in hallway interactions, and holding open office hours.

2. Build strong relationships. Being visible enhances opportunities to build strong relationships. Invest time in getting to know your team members personally. Show genuine interest in their well-being, concerns, and aspirations. When people feel valued and understood, they are more likely to be influenced by your ideas and direction.

3. Lead by example. Demonstrate the behavior and values you want others to emulate. Actions speak louder than words, so strive to embody integrity, accountability, and dedication in everything you do. When you consistently model the behavior you expect, others are more likely to follow suit.

4. Be authentic. Genuine leadership fosters a positive school culture, encourages open communication, and models integrity and transparency. Authentic leaders inspire others, create a supportive environment, effectively address challenges, and drive positive change.

5. Communicate effectively. Master the art of communication by listening actively, speaking clearly, and conveying your ideas productively. Craft your message to resonate with your staff, and be open to feedback and dialogue. Effective communication fosters understanding, builds trust, and enhances your ability to influence others.

6. Empower and develop others. Create opportunities for growth and development within your team. Delegate responsibilities, provide guidance and support, and encourage autonomy and initiative. Empowering others builds their skills and confidence and fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to shared goals.

7. Seek consensus. Instead of imposing your positional power, find common ground and consensus among staff members. Involve others in decision-making processes, solicit their input and perspectives, and consider various viewpoints before making a final decision. Collaboration and inclusivity build buy-in and commitment from all stakeholders.

8. Inspire through vision. Detail a vision that inspires and motivates others to action. Clearly articulate your vision’s purpose, goals, and benefits, and demonstrate how each individual contributes to its realization. An inspiring vision creates a shared purpose and direction, rallying people around a common cause.

9. Adapt and be flexible. Recognize that influence is not one-size-fits-all, and adapt your approach to different situations and personalities. Be flexible in your leadership style, willing to experiment, learn, and adjust based on feedback and results. Adaptability demonstrates agility and responsiveness, enhancing your credibility and effectiveness as a leader.

By implementing these strategies, you can effectively lead by influencing, inspiring, and guiding others to achieve shared goals and objectives.

Leading by influence is essential because it encourages collaboration and teamwork by emphasizing relationships and mutual respect. Instead of relying solely on authority or coercion, leaders who lead by influence inspire others to work together toward common goals, leveraging the team’s collective strengths.

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