Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Leadership is influence — nothing more, nothing less.

The more I speak to leaders of all stripes, the more I’m reminded of the truth of this statement. No matter who you are, no matter where you serve, if you have influence with people, you can lead them.

So the question becomes, How can I gain influence?

In fact, I get asked that question a lot. And I’m going to tell you the secret to influence today. It’s not hard to understand, and once you’ve got it, you’ll be able to gain influence almost anywhere you go.

But first, a foundational principle: You can’t build influence without other people. From bake sales to board meetings, there is no leadership without others, because influence comes from other people. It’s something they give in response to who they perceive you to be. The moment people perceive you differently is the moment that influence is withdrawn.

Borrowing versus Earning

So when it comes to the question of gaining influence, I look at it this way: Every leader either borrows influence or earns it. When people give you permission to lead in their lives because of your actions, you’ve earned influence. When people give you permission to lead in their lives because of your words, you’ve borrowed influence.

Now, both types of influence can be used to achieve great things. In fact, in most cases leaders borrow influence before they earn it. But a great leader understands that people will only trust their words for a limited time. Once they realize that the leader’s actions don’t match, they’ll withdraw borrowed influence.

So, while people can make an entire career off borrowed influence, they will have to continually churn through followers in order to do it. They may have a handful of ardent supporters who keep them going, but they always need a new crop of people—who aren’t yet familiar with their track record—to borrow influence from.

And even worse, borrowed influence can’t be shared. It’s like being given store credit—you can’t shop at Walmart with a Target gift card. With borrowed influence, the permission followers give the leader isn’t strong enough to extend to anyone else on the team. Unless the leader’s words are backed by actions—and results—his or her influence has limits.

Earned influence, on the other hand, is like money in your pocket. It’s based on something tangible, so the leader can freely share and use it to lift others to positions of influence — it’s like re-investing money for a return. Every time a leader takes his or her team to victory, that shared experience earns the leader influence for the next challenge or opportunity.

It also earns the leader new team members. Everyone wants to work with someone who delivers the goods and can be trusted, and leaders who have a track record of success and integrity attract the best talent when openings arise.

If you want to know who’s earning influence and who’s borrowing it, keep a close eye on how many people are leaving. The higher the turnover in an organization, the more likely that leaders are borrowing influence instead of earning it. Leaders who earn influence keep their best people, as well as attract new ones to their team.

Which Kind of Influence Do You Have?

When leaders settle for borrowing influence instead of earning it, they fail to meet their capacity in leadership. Because we live in a culture that is starved for leadership, many people will give influence to someone who sounds or looks good for a time.

Once they have been burned, however, it takes a genuine leader who can do something positive and meaningful to get people to give influence away again.

That bears repeating: Once someone’s been burned, influence is harder to earn.

To lift and lead others in the long term, you must be a leader who continually earns influence with your actions. Not everything has to be a win—you can earn a lot of influence by persevering through failure, for example—but every action needs to match the leader’s words and show his or her willingness to move forward and learn.

So the question for you is, which kind of influence do you have? Are you borrowing influence or are you earning it?

If you’re borrowing it, the good news is that you can make the shift toward earning it easily. Taking action and producing positive results with your team is the best way to convert borrowed influence into earned. And once you’ve earned influence, it’s easier still to build on that! As you guide your people through more and greater challenges, you build up earned influence that allows the team to take even bigger risks, which can yield even greater rewards.

Leadership is influence, and the best kind of influence comes when people give you permission to lead in their lives based on your actions. If you want to get real influence, you have to get busy—and earn it from the people you lead.

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