4 min read

Have you ever noticed that there seems to be no straight cause-and-effect relationship between what you do as a leader and the response you get out of those whom you are trying to influence? Well.. It’s true.

There are just too many other factors in the mix than can mess up that direct line of influence. So, what can you do? Maybe the answer to that question lies in the concept of indirect influence.

The truth is that people are constrained by policies and procedures, by the availability and complexity of the technologies being used, and by hidden group values and assumptions. These contextual factors not only affect the followers but they also simultaneously affect the leader.

Sometimes the context just does not work in your favor. There are moments when it seems like—no matter how hard you try—your efforts to influence others are nullified by the very environment in which you work. Take, for example, the environment of higher education. It is often characterized by stringent limitations on the dissemination of information.

Some of these policies are not imposed by the institution itself but by outside accreditation and government agencies. This can make it difficult for a leader to encourage information sharing and free access to information that is crucial for encouraging institutional learning. So, the leader’s influence ends up being neutralized by bureaucratic regulations.

Sometimes you can turn this principle around and actually use the context to increase your influence in an indirect way. For example, in The Living Company, Arie De Geus talks about Dutch Shell’s decision to embark on a new philosophy of decentralization and the empowerment of local site managers. They had a particularly tough time with their Brazilian site because of some cultural ideas about respect for authority and fear of losing face.

No matter how often they affirmed that their local managers were empowered, they found that they persisted in passing their decisions back up the hierarchy to the home base for approval. The only effective way to solve this problem was to create a long and tedious process for questions to reach the home office and answers to be relayed back to Brazil. It was so cumbersome that the local managers started making decisions on their own!

Expert gardeners know what needs to be done for their beans, carrots, and Radicchio lettuce to grow on their own. They know how to supply the right amounts of fertilizer and water at the right times so they don’t end up stunting the growth of the plants. They know that the force of growth is not in command, but in creating a growth-facilitating context. In other words, they trust the principles of nature to produce the desired results.

This trust in a higher principle, or guiding force, is an important characteristic of empowering leaders. I believe this higher principle is God and the creative life force that He has placed in all of nature, including human beings. But whatever the source of this confidence, it allows empowering leaders to trust the process and exercise indirect influence.

The practice of indirect influence is in contrast to managers who feel that the only way to manage is through the direct application of their authority. It’s as though they only had one tool in their management toolbox and when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Empowering leaders see themselves as the creators of contexts where people can grow. Such leaders create an empowering environment at every layer of the organization and criteria to measure whether it is taking place. They give individuals the freedom to perform and create, reproducing leadership throughout the company. Once this context is in place, these leaders believe that it will naturally produce proactive employees whose combined wisdom will give them the competitive edge.

I’m just wondering if any of this rings true for you? Some may feel that this sounds like more warm fuzzy theory that doesn’t work in the battlefield of real management. What do you think? Can you share an experience in the comments area below of how the context has either helped or hindered your leadership? How do you use indirect influence as a management principle?


Photo: Jatropha hybrid by Ton Rulkens, May 9, 2010. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo was cropped and flipped.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.