There’s a MASSIVE difference between power and influence. Do you know what it is?

For those of you who’ve seen the Spiderman movies (or read the comics), you’re probably familiar with the famous one liner from Uncle Ben to Peter Parker when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility”.  While we can’t all be superhero’s shooting webs and saving the city, this quote is still extremely valuable for leaders in today’s world.  Why you ask?  Well, as leaders, we often find ourselves in positions of power with great responsibility but what does that mean exactly?  What is power, actually? And what responsibility comes with it? And most importantly, is power the same as influence? Let’s find out…

In this article, I will address three important pillars of the relationship between power, responsibility and leadership.  First, I will define what power is and where it comes from.  Second, I will discuss what “great responsibility” comes with power for leaders and third, I will propose an invaluable difference between power and influence and discuss which is most useful for leaders.

So, what is power?

Well, for starters, the lame Webster’s dictionary definition is  “Possession of control, authority, or influence over others.”  Understanding this definition, it should come as no surprise that those of us in leadership roles have a certain level of power given to us as part of our role.

As parents, we have the power over our children…

Coaches have a level of power over their players…

Supervisors have power over their staff…

CEO’s have power over their companies…

You get the idea, right?

So what does “possession of control, authority or influence over others” actually mean?

Well, my interpretation of that definition has two parts:

  1. First, power is the ability to make decisions that others are expected to follow….
  2. Second, power is the ability to control resources (time, money, supplies, etc.)

Essentially, power is control.  Control over choices.  Control over resources.  And most notably, control over other people.

But control only get’s you so far as a leader in today’s world and that’s where influence comes in (but we’ll get to that at the end of the article).

So if we understand what power is then what great responsibility comes with power for leaders? 

Let’s start by identifying what draws many people to leadership in the first place; the pursuit of control.  As kids, we long for control over our own choices.  Many of us said things like, “When I’m older, I’ll stay up as late as I want or eat junk food before dinner, etc”.  Then as we transition into adulthood, we explore ways to gain even more control over our lives.

Why? Because as rational beings, we like to be the one making decisions for our own lives.  Nobody likes to be told what to do.  We like having the control to decide how our time is spent, how we acquire resources, how we interact with others and essentially, how we live our own lives.

Our professional lives our no different.  We want control.  It’s not uncommon to question your leaderships decisions making skills and debate whether you could have done better job had you been the one in control of the choices being made.

But then there’s the trade off…

Power sounds great when it means we regain control but that control comes at the cost.  The cost of responsibility.  “With great power comes great responsibility”, remember? Once you take on a position of power you are immediately put in the spotlight and people start paying attention to you.  They pay attention to how you act, how you treat others, what choices you make, and most importantly, what you do with the power you were given.  That’s a lot of responsibility.

As leaders with power, we are responsible for making good choices that positively impact those we lead and most importantly, we are responsible for using our power in a way that creates prosperity, stability and positive impacts in the environments in which we lead.  The responsibility to be accountable is the biggest trade off to having power.

This is where truly great leaders separate themselves from the rest of the pack.  They take accountability for their power and how it is used.  They take ownership of the choices that were made and they understand that their power and control come at the cost of accountability.

Finally, what is influence and how is it different from power? 

For the sake of consistency, let’s turn to Webster’s definition again.  Webster defines influence as “the power to change or affect someone or something or the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen”.  This is probably pretty similar to how most of us would define influence, right? In my definition of influence I would only need to change one word which I believe has a profound impact on the way this definition is interpreted.

My definition would read, “The ability to change or affect someone or something or the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen”.

Why does that one word make such a difference?  Well for starters, ability implies a lack of control and that is the primary difference between influence and power.  With power, you have the control to make choices that others are expected to follow.  There is clear authority present because of your control over choices, resources and people.

Influence, however, relies on choice instead of authority and consequences.  This is what makes influence so important and useful.

Having influence over someone means that person (or group of people) has decided to follow your words and guidance.  Jesus has influence 0ver his followers because they believed in Him and what he shared with them.

We are given power as part of our role as leaders but influence is earned through valiant effort to gain the trust and respect of those we lead.  Influence is given to you by those you lead once they have decided to follow you – no sooner.

There is a time and place for power in leadership but earning and using influence will always produce greater results.  The development of influence builds morale, respect and trust between people and their leader.

So what’s the difference between power and influence?

Influence is the ability to leverage yourself in a way that makes other actually want to follow you and listen to what you have to say.

Power is being in the position where people have to listen to what you say.

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