Leading by Influence vs Authority: Explore the Leadership Dynamics

Leading by Influence vs Authority Explore the Leadership Dynamics

In this piece, we’ll discuss the pivotal role of leadership in shaping an organization. We’ll focus on two distinct styles – leading with influence and leading with authority. The style that relies on influence harnesses personal traits and relationships to motivate and sway team members. Conversely, authority-led style leverages a formal position to direct the team. Each method presents its own merits and challenges, and their success largely hinges on factors like the organization’s culture, the workforce’s nature, and the specific objectives at hand.

Table of Contents

What is the Main Difference Between Leading by Influence and Leading by Authority?

The main difference between Leading by Influence and Leading by Authority is that the former is based on the ability to inspire, motivate, and encourage others to act through personal charisma, trust, and respect, whereas the latter relies on positional power, control, and formal directives to command action. Leading by influence involves persuasion and example-setting, with leaders connecting on an emotional level to engage their team. In contrast, leading by authority uses a more top-down approach, where decisions and instructions flow from the leader to subordinates, who follow them primarily due to the leader’s organizational role.

What is Leading by Influence and What is Leading by Authority?

Leading by Influence refers to the capacity of an individual to sway or alter others’ behaviors, decisions, or actions through personal attributes such as charisma, communication skills, expert knowledge, or social connections. Rather than issuing orders, those who lead by influence do so by example, building relationships, and earning trust, which in turn inspires others to follow them voluntarily. Influence is often seen in leadership styles that encourage collaboration, empower team members, and foster a shared vision. Leaders who excel in this style are great listeners, storytellers, and are perceived as genuine and credible in their intentions and actions.

In contrast, Leading by Authority is the more traditional leadership approach that depends on the power vested in a leader’s formal position. This type of leadership sees a clear hierarchy where leaders give instructions that others are expected to carry out without question. Authority-based leaders hold decision-making power and are often responsible for setting goals, imposing rules, and evaluating performance. Their position typically benefits from recognized titles such as manager, director, or CEO, and their power to lead comes from the organizational structure that bestows them with the right to direct others.

Key Differences Between Leading by Influence and Leading by Authority

  1. Basis of Power: Influence-based leadership stems from personal qualities, while authority-based leadership derives from a formal job title.
  2. Method of Engagement: Influence leaders win hearts through persuasion, while authority leaders may compel obedience through commands.
  3. Relationship with Team Members: Influence leaders often build horizontal, collaborative relationships compared to the vertical, directive relationships of authority leaders.
  4. Flexibility in Decision Making: Influence leaders tend to embrace shared decision-making, while authority leaders are inclined to make unilateral decisions.
  5. Approach to Conflict: Leaders by influence often address disagreements through dialogue and compromise, whereas leaders by authority may resolve conflicts by making executive decisions.
  6. Driving Change: Influence leaders facilitate change by garnering support and inspiring action, while authority leaders may enforce change through edicts and mandates.
  7. Emphasis on Culture: Leadership through influence typically promotes a culture of empowerment, whereas authority leadership may cultivate a culture of compliance.
  8. Sustainability without Title: Leaders by influence can retain their leadership role without formal positions, whereas authority often depends on holding a specific role.

Key Similarities Between Leading by Influence and Leading by Authority

  1. Goal Orientation: Both types of leaders aim to achieve goals and guide their teams towards success.
  2. Responsibility for Outcomes: Leaders by influence and authority are accountable for the performance and results of their teams.
  3. Driving Initiatives: Whether through influence or authority, leaders mobilize resources and people to implement projects and initiatives.
  4. Importance of Communication: Effective communication is essential for both leadership approaches to convey visions, expectations, and feedback.
  5. Role in Organizational Structure: Leaders by influence and by authority both play integral roles within the hierarchy of organizations, ensuring team alignment.
  6. Impact on Culture: Both types of leaders shape the organizational culture, although the methods and styles of doing so may differ.
  7. Ethical Considerations: Ethical leadership is critical for both influence and authority figures, as trust and integrity are necessary to lead effectively.

Pros of Leading through Influence Rather than Authority

  1. Encourages Creativity and Innovation: When team members feel they are being led by influence, they are more likely to express their ideas freely. This openness fosters an environment where creativity and out-of-the-box thinking are promoted, which can lead to innovation and improved problem-solving.
  2. Builds Longer-Term Commitment: Influential leadership helps to create a bond of trust and respect, which often translates into deeper commitment from team members. They tend to be more dedicated to the leader’s vision and goals because they feel part of the journey rather than merely following orders.
  3. Empowers Team Members: Leaders who prioritize influence over authority are likelier to empower their team members by entrusting them with meaningful tasks and responsibilities. This sense of empowerment can enhance job satisfaction and confidence among team members, leading to higher performance levels.
  4. Adaptability to Change: Influential leaders are generally more adaptable to change because they understand the dynamics of human relationships and can negotiate transitions with their team more effectively. Their empathetic approach allows for smoother shifts in direction when required.
  5. Enhanced Team Morale: The supportive and inclusive nature of influence-based leadership contributes to enhanced team morale. A happier and more cohesive team is often more productive and shows a reduced rate of turnover.
  6. Develops Future Leaders: This style of leadership encourages the growth of leadership skills in others. By modeling effective communication, empathy, and trust-building, influential leaders help develop these qualities in their team members, paving the way for future leaders.

Cons of Leading through Influence Versus Authority

  1. May Take Longer to Make Decisions: Since influence-based leadership often involves consensus-building, it can sometimes lead to slower decision-making processes. The time taken to persuade and bring everyone on board might delay actions that need to be taken promptly.
  2. Risk of Ambiguity: Without the clear lines of command that authority provides, instructions and expectations might sometimes be less clear, leading to confusion or a lack of direction among team members.
  3. Potential for Leadership to be Challenged: In the absence of formal authority, it might be easier for team members to question or challenge a leader’s decisions. Maintaining leadership purely through influence can be harder when difficult decisions or unpopular actions are needed.
  4. Possibility of Misinterpretation: Messages passed through channels that rely on influence rather than direct commands are at greater risk of being misinterpreted, which can lead to inconsistent results or actions that are out of alignment with the leader’s intentions.
  5. Limited Control in Crisis: In times of crisis, when quick and decisive action is required, leading purely by influence may be less effective. In such situations, the capability to assert authority and take immediate control can be critical.
  6. Difficulty in Applying across Larger Organizations: Leading by influence may be harder to scale in larger organizations where personal interactions and established relationships are more challenging to maintain.

Advantages of Leading with Authority Over Influence

  1. Quicker Decision-Making: Leading by authority allows for faster decision-making processes, as the clear lines of hierarchical command enable leaders to act decisively and have their directions followed without the need for prolonged discussions or persuasion.
  2. Clear Chain of Command: The well-defined hierarchy in authority-based leadership provides a clear chain of command. There is less ambiguity about roles, responsibilities, and accountability, which can streamline operations and reduce confusion.
  3. Consistency of Execution: Authority-based leadership often results in a more consistent execution of tasks, as instructions are delivered clearly and expected to be followed precisely, reducing the variability that can arise from personal interpretations.
  4. Effective in High-Stakes Situations: In high-pressure or emergency situations, having a leader with clear authority can be effective in directing quick and necessary action, where too much discussion or debate could be detrimental.
  5. Enhanced Ability to Enforce Standards: Leaders who operate on authority can better enforce policies, standards, and regulations ensuring that essential guidelines are met and organizational requirements are adhered to.
  6. Strong Direction during Initiatives: When initiating new projects or driving change, a leader with authority can provide the strong direction and impetus needed to overcome resistance and ensure that initiatives move forward.

Disadvantages of Leading by Authority Compared to Influence

  1. Can Discourage Team Input: A leadership approach that relies heavily on authority might discourage team members from sharing their ideas and feedback, which could result in a lack of diverse perspectives and potential innovation.
  2. Might Lead to Lower Engagement: If team members feel they are only being directed, rather than being authentically engaged, this can lead to lower overall engagement levels, potentially affecting job satisfaction and performance.
  3. Dependence on Leader’s Presence: The effectiveness of an authority-led team can sometimes be too dependent on the leader’s presence to make decisions and direct action, which might leave the team less capable when the leader is unavailable.
  4. Potentially Increased Resistance: Leadership that employs authority over influence can sometimes face increased resistance from those who feel their autonomy is being limited or undervalued, which can lead to tension and conflict.
  5. Less Emphasis on Personal Development: The focus on command and control may neglect the personal and professional development of team members since the priority is on following orders rather than fostering individual growth.
  6. Challenge in Building Sustainable Relationships: Command-oriented leadership might struggle to build long-lasting relationships that are based on mutual trust and respect, making it harder to create a loyal and collaborative team environment.

When Leading by Influence Outperforms Leading by Authority

  1. In High-Trust Environments: Leadership by influence thrives in environments where trust is a cornerstone. In a setting where team members believe in the integrity and expertise of their leader, they are more inclined to follow through on guidance that is not mandated but rather suggested.
  2. During Organizational Change: Change can be difficult for many. But when leading by influence, a leader can more easily weave new directions into the fabric of a team’s dynamic, encouraging acceptance and buy-in for the change without imposing it.
  3. Where Innovation is Required: In scenarios demanding creativity and fresh ideas, leading by influence allows team members to feel valued for their input, spurring an environment ripe for innovation.
  4. In Cross-Functional Teams: With teams that span various departments or skill sets, having an influential leader can create a bridge across diverse groups, fostering unity and collaboration without the need for direct authority.
  5. For Long-Term Strategy Execution: Projects or strategies that unfold over an extended period benefit from leaders who influence, as they cultivate dedication that persists even when challenges arise.
  6. In Flat or Agile Organizations: In organizations with less hierarchical structure, influence is the key to leadership success as it aligns closely with the culture of shared leadership and responsibility.

When Leading by Authority is More Effective than Leading by Influence

  1. In Crisis Situations: When quick action is needed, such as in emergencies or critical situations, authority-based leadership can provide the swift decisions and directions necessary to navigate the challenges effectively.
  2. With New or Uncertain Team Members: When dealing with inexperienced team members or those who require more guidance, authority can provide the structure and certainty needed to build confidence and establish clear expectations.
  3. In Highly Regulated Industries: In environments where compliance and adherence to strict guidelines are essential, the clarity and control provided by authority can help maintain high standards and avoid costly mistakes or violations.
  4. When Enforcing Non-Negotiable Standards: Certain projects or goals demand that specific standards be met without compromise. Authority allows leaders to enforce these essential benchmarks consistently.
  5. To Establish Initial Order: A new leader stepping into a disorganized or undisciplined situation may need to exercise authority to quickly establish order and set the stage for future influence-based leadership.
  6. For Directing Large Teams or Departments: With large numbers of staff, personalized influence becomes less practical, and authoritative direction with a clear chain of command can ensure that all team members understand their roles and responsibilities.

Characteristics of Leading by Influence Versus Leading by Authority

Leading by Influence:

  1. Based on Trust and Credibility: Influence is earned when followers trust and respect the leader’s expertise, character, and intentions.
  2. Encouragement and Motivation: Leaders who influence inspire others by motivating and recognizing the contributions of their team.
  3. Collaboration over Control: These leaders prefer collaboration and collective decision-making rather than dictating every action.
  4. Empathy and Understanding: They value the perspectives and feelings of team members, leading with empathy.
  5. Adaptability and Resilience: Influential leaders are skilled at adapting to varied situations and demonstrating resilience.
  6. Role Modeling Desired Behaviors: By setting a personal example, these leaders illustrate the behaviors they expect from others.

Leading by Authority:

  1. Position and Title-Based Power: Authority comes from one’s formal position within an organization.
  2. Directive and Decisive Action: These leaders make decisions often without requiring consensus.
  3. Control and Enforcement: Traditional authority involves controlling situations and enforcing rules or policies.
  4. Clear Hierarchy: There’s a distinct chain of command that dictates the flow of orders and information.
  5. Structured Systems and Processes: Authority relies on established systems and strict processes for workflow and decision-making.
  6. Stability and Order: This leadership style provides a stable environment with prescribed order and predictability.

Evaluating the Context for Influence and Authority in Leadership

Identifying the most appropriate leadership approach depends on understanding the context in which a leader operates. This includes recognizing the nuances of different scenarios where one style may be more beneficial than the other.

Analyzing Organizational Culture and Team Dynamics

The culture of an organization can heavily dictate which leadership style will be most effective. In organizations where a culture of openness, mutual respect, and shared responsibility has been nurtured, leading by influence can be particularly effective. Such environments typically value dialogue, input from all levels of staff, and a team-centered approach to problem-solving. Influence-based leadership aligns well with these values by encouraging participation and ensuring that team members feel that their voices matter. On the other hand, in more traditional corporate settings where consistency, precision, and clear delineations of responsibility are prized, leadership by authority may be the natural choice. These environments require a clear directive voice to maintain the stringent processes that keep the business operating smoothly.

Evaluating the Impact of Leadership Styles on Individual Performance

Different individuals on a team may respond to leadership styles in varying ways, making it important for a leader to understand their team’s personalities and work habits. Some members might excel under the autonomy that comes with influence-based leadership, finding motivation in the trust placed in them to complete their tasks. Others may perform better under a more structured authoritative approach that outlines exact expectations and the path to achieve them. Leaders must assess individual performance metrics and personal feedback to determine the mix of influence and authority that can lead to the optimum performance of each team member. Balancing these approaches can be the key to tailoring leadership to individual needs while maintaining overall team cohesion and productivity.

Anticipating and Overcoming Resistance to Leadership Styles

One of the challenges that leaders face, regardless of the style they adopt, is resistance from team members. Leadership by influence can occasionally be met with skepticism, especially in situations where the leadership transition has been recent. Team members may question the persuasive nature of the leader, seeking more definitive signs of credibility and authority. Conversely, authoritative leadership can prompt pushback from those who feel overmanaged or undervalued, which can lead to a decline in morale and engagement. Predicting and addressing these kinds of resistance requires a deep understanding of the group’s dynamics and proactive communication strategies that address concerns while reinforcing the rationale behind the chosen leadership approach.

Balancing Influence and Authority in Effective Leadership

While the distinction between leading by influence and by authority is clear, the most effective leaders are often those who can balance elements of both styles. This balance enables them to adapt their leadership to diverse situations and to the unique needs of their team and organization.

Incorporating Both Styles for Organizational Success

Successful leaders must be adept at recognizing when to exert their authority and when to rely on their influence. For example, during the steady execution of well-established processes, the assertiveness of authority can keep teams aligned and productive. However, in times of strategic planning or when creative solutions are necessary, drawing on influence to engage and inspire team members can be more effective. Leaders need to be fluid in their approach, wielding their authoritative power when decisiveness is required, but also fostering an environment where influence leads to collective engagement and shared investment in outcomes.

Adapting Leadership to the Requirements of the Situation

Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It’s contingent upon the specific needs and challenges of any given circumstance. When facing a crisis or deadlines that require immediate action, the clarity and control of an authoritative stance may be called upon to guide the team swiftly and effectively. Conversely, periods of growth or change may benefit from a more influence-based style, where the focus is on nurturing adaptability, building consensus, and encouraging a participatory approach to navigating new landscapes. Learning to read the situation and apply the appropriate mix of influence and authority is a refined skill that leaders can develop over time.

Fostering Leadership Flexibility and Emotional Intelligence

Ultimately, the best leaders are those who can harmonize the use of influence and authority to guide their teams effectively. Such leaders exemplify emotional intelligence—understanding when team members need encouragement and autonomy, when to step in with a firm directive, and how to communicate effectively across the spectrum. They seamlessly shift between roles as needed, exhibiting flexibility in their leadership style. Building an environment where feedback is encouraged, understood, and acted upon forms the basis of this flexibility, creating a dynamic where leaders are as informed and adaptable as possible to both their team’s needs and organizational objectives.


What are the benefits of combining both influence and authority in leadership?

Combining influence and authority can lead to a more versatile and adaptive leadership approach. It enables leaders to set clear expectations and make quick decisions when necessary while also nurturing team collaboration, creativity, and empowerment through influence. This balance helps create a responsive and high-performing team environment, with the flexibility to address different situations effectively.

How does leading by influence foster creativity in team members?

Leading by influence promotes an open environment where team members are encouraged to share their ideas and take calculated risks. By valuing their input and providing constructive feedback instead of simply giving orders, leaders by influence create a safe space for creativity that can lead to innovation and problem-solving.

Can authority-based leadership be effective in fostering team engagement?

While authority-based leadership is often associated with a more directive approach, it can foster team engagement by setting clear goals and creating a sense of stability and reliability within the team. Authoritative leaders can engage their teams by recognizing achievements, providing clear pathways for career advancement, and ensuring that team members see how their tasks contribute to the larger organizational goals.

In what scenarios is leading by authority most effective?

Leading by authority is most effective in scenarios that require quick decisions, consistent execution of tasks, high-stakes or crisis situations, and environments where enforcing policies and standards is crucial. This style suits well-defined hierarchical structures where clarity on roles and responsibilities is paramount for successful outcomes.

Does leading by influence affect team decision-making processes?

Yes, leading by influence may affect decision-making processes by emphasizing consensus-building and collaboration. This approach is generally more time-consuming, as it involves seeking input from the team and arriving at decisions that align with shared goals and values. While the process might be slower, it can lead to more comprehensive and thoughtful outcomes that the entire team supports.

How can a leader effectively transition from authority-based leadership to influence-based leadership?

Transitioning from authority-based to influence-based leadership involves developing personal qualities that inspire and motivate others, such as effective communication, empathy, transparency, and trust-building. Leaders should focus on fostering relationships, listening actively, and engaging their team members in decision-making to create a more collaborative and inclusive culture.

Can leadership by influence scale effectively in larger organizations?

Leadership by influence may be more challenging to implement effectively in larger organizations due to the difficulties in maintaining close personal interactions and establishing relationships at scale. However, with the right communication channels and empowering middle management to act as influencers, this leadership style can still be applied successfully.

What might be the consequences of excessive reliance on authority in leadership?

Excessive reliance on authority may lead to decreased team input, lower engagement, increased resistance, and a workforce that lacks initiative and innovation. Overemphasis on authority can also lead to dependency on the leader’s presence for decision-making and a less cohesive team culture.

How does a leader’s emotional intelligence relate to their ability to influence?

A leader’s emotional intelligence is closely related to their ability to influence because it involves understanding and managing one’s own emotions while also being perceptive of and responsive to the emotions of others. High emotional intelligence allows leaders to build stronger relationships, communicate more effectively, and adapt their approach to meet the needs of their team members.

Is there a particular industry where influence-based leadership excels over authority-based leadership?

Influence-based leadership excels in industries and sectors that emphasize innovation, creativity, and change, such as the technology sector, creative industries, and start-ups. These environments often benefit from a flat organizational structure where collaboration and shared vision are essential for success.

Leading by Influence vs Leading by Authority Summary

In conclusion, while authority has its place in the leadership spectrum, influence possesses the distinct capability to establish a profound and motivational relationship with team members, fostering a culture of commitment, innovation, and shared success. On the other hand, authority offers structure, quick decision-making, and a framework for enforcing compliance and guidelines that are also pivotal to the well-being of any organization. Acknowledging the strengths and applications of each style can help leaders make more informed choices and employ strategies that resonate with their teams, thus achieving a harmonious and effective organizational working environment.

FeatureLeading by InfluenceLeading by Authority
Basis of PowerPersonal qualities such as charisma and trustFormal job title and organizational role
Method of EngagementPersuasion, building relationshipsCommand and control
Relationship with TeamHorizontal and collaborativeVertical and directive
Decision-MakingEmbraces shared decision-makingUnilateral decisions
Approach to ConflictDialogue and compromiseExecutive decisions
Driving ChangeGarnering support, inspiring voluntary actionEnforcing change through mandates
Culture EmphasisEmpowerment and mutual respectCompliance and adherence to rules
SustainabilityCan lead effectively without formal position/titleDepends on holding a formal title/role
Leading by Influence vs Leading by Authority Summary

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