Leading from within: Why power and influence don’t have to go hand and hand

One of my good friends and colleagues in the nonprofit community works for a pretty broken organization. Even though they do good work and receive a lot of community support, the inner workings of the organization are a hot mess. The executive director is completely checked out, and the staff are all looking for new jobs. And yet, they meet their financial goals and have great programmatic successes. Even though the organizational culture is extremely dysfunctional, the organization itself is still high functioning. What accounts for this? How can a broken organization still be doing so much good?

I think part of the success is because even though the staff members are unhappy, they believe in the cause and mission of the organization.  But the other part of the success is credited to one of my friend’s coworkers, who consistently guides the staff in the absence of an engaged leader. He’s become the de facto executive director and is hugely influential in the organization. Does he have any real power? Absolutely not. But he does have huge influence. My friend tells me that the entire staff goes to him for advice and approval on projects. If he doesn’t think something is a good idea, it doesn’t get done. If he champions a cause, it goes through. More importantly, he’s able to keep the staff from crumbling or combusting. Even though he has no real power, he leads the organization from within the ranks of the staff. Whether he does it intentionally or naturally, I don’t know. All I know is that he does it successfully.

In 2012, I went through a program with Shafer Leadership Academy called Emergence. It’s a leadership seminar that teaches you how to harness your own skills and abilities to be a leader in any setting (work, home, volunteering) from any position. Of all the many takeaways I got from the session, what I’ve used most since is that it’s my responsibility to be influential and to be a leader regardless of my rank in an organization. As a full-time graduate student and part-time staff member in my office, I don’t have a ton of clout. But I’ve found that I can help steer conversations and affect the course of action of using the influence that I have, even though it comes with an absence of power.

Can you think of a time when you led a team with influence instead of power? Or perhaps you’ve been on a team that’s been led just by the power of the authority of the position. I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.