Just because you are an influencer doesn’t mean you are a good leader.

A salesperson can influence you buy a timeshare, but it doesn’t make him or her a leader. A military junta can get people to take a different course than they naturally would take, but again this doesn’t make those who stage the coup good leaders.

For years, the business world has operated off the definition that “leadership is influence, nothing more nothing less.” (John Maxwell)

This definition, while offering a piece of what it means to be a leader, falls short with the nothing more-nothing less statement.

Good Leaders are more than influencers, according to David Burkus of  The Leadership Lab

He emphasizes this in a simple false syllogism.

Major Premise: “Leadership is influence.”

Minor Premise: Salespeople influence others.

Conclusion: Salespeople are leaders.

Very few people would agree that all salespeople are leaders.

Influence IS vital to leadership but the definition of a leader needs to be expanded. Burkus provides us this expansion:

            Leadership is the process of influencing others to work toward a mutually         desired vision.

The addendum to the classic leadership definition gives us the filter to keep outliers like, the door-to-door vacuum salesmen, and other influencers who are non-leaders out.

But his definition does more. It filters out BAD leaders. Hitler was an effective leader, but he could by NO MEANS be called a GOOD leader. Why? He wasn’t taking his followers toward a mutually desired vision.

Breaking down Burkus’ definition.

Leadership is a Process

Persuading someone to take a one-time action is not leadership. Healthy leaders know that momentum is built by getting followers to take repeated actions in the same direction.  Leadership is not a role; it's a process involving how an individual or a group influences others toward a particular goal or objective. Leadership development occurs across one's life span. Many leadership development programs don't come close to what life does to produce outstanding leaders. So one of the most important elements of our work on leadership development is the focus we take on sustaining the development experience over an extended period of time, keeping in mind our impact points on performance. This is why we developed the Keller Influence Indicator®, to allow users to measure the growth of their leadership and influence abilities over a lifetime.

Influencing Others

A leader influences people, not merely circumstances or trends. Vincent van Gogh and Franz Schubert had massive influence upon the direction of art but no evidence of leading people. The leader is a human developer, having people change their minds about self-limitation and the reality of achieving of the objective. This intentional focus on people is a key point in differentiating between an influencer and a leader.

Others To Work

Leaders cannot operate on an island while an influencer-only can. Leaders use their influence to draw others into the tasks at hand, gaining their participation in the effort. Again, when we look at Van Gogh or Schubert, they operated on artistic islands. Abraham Lincoln on the other hand-a renowned leader-drew people into the work of saving the Union.

It is not influencing others to purchase or recreate that defines a leader. A leader can influence others to put sweat equity into the task at hand.

A Mutually Desired Vision

This is the dividing line between not only between an influencer and a leader, but between a GOOD leader and a bad leader. The bad leader can gain results by holding a position of authority. However, a good leader casts the vision of where everyone wants to go. Martin Luther King is the classic example of this, cast forth in the I Have Dream speech.

A leader cannot sustain himself or herself as a leader without an orientation toward the future or the capacity to leverage it in others. A great leader brings prolepsis, making future potential so tangible that it appears to be nearly accomplished in the present tense. 

Steve Graves points out other differences between influence and leadership set forth in these insights:

  • Leadership is visible; influence is out of sight
  • Leadership is usually conscious; influence is often unconscious
  • Leadership is contained; influence crosses boundaries
  • Leadership is immediate; influence is long-term
  • Leadership is public; influence is often behind the scenes
  • Leadership is formulaic; influence is mysterious
  • Leadership captivates culture; influence drives culture
  • Leadership is the tip of the iceberg; influence is the mass under the surface
  • Leaders act on people; influence affects people and outcomes

Why an influencer is not necessarily a leader, there is no such thing as a leader who possesses no influence. All leaders must possess influence. They simply use this influence to move people to work toward a mutually beneficial goal, not simply make a one time purchase. The greatest leaders can influence others and cast vision to the point to where followers will even lay down their lives to see the vision accomplished. This is story of Normandy (Churchill and FDR), the Union soldiers (Lincoln), the disciples of Jesus, and the Civil Rights marchers (Martin Luther King). All possessed influence. All possessed vision and could effectively cast it.

How You Develop Leadership Skills

1. Don’t rush it.

Developing your leadership skills takes a lifetime. Measure progress not perfection. Take note of where you have grown and where you need more development. Use the Keller Influence Indicator® to measure progress.

2. Focus on people as much as you do outcomes.

Great leaders don’t only influence events, they build people. Learn how to get more out of people than they think they can get out of themselves and you’ll be well on your way to being a great leader.

3. Model the work you want done.

A good leader is a servant leader. He or she is willing to sacrifice to see the goal accomplished. Followers take note and make the same life adjustments.

4. When in doubt, cast vision.

Paint the picture of what succeeding looks like. Make it tangible to everyone you lead. Continue stating, “Here is WHY we are striving so hard.”

Everyone can grow in influence and leadership abilities. Lead in the arena where you are currently placed. Don’t wait for a title or promotion.  Start influencing others to work toward a mutually desired vision.


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From regional manager to international executive with quadruple the pay, Karen Keller’s unique blueprint carefully outlined the step-by-step process for creating high-impact influence and let me know when I was being influenced in a way that didn’t serve me.
Lloyd Moore
Global Director Supplier Quality & Development - Lear Corporation – South Carolina