I have written several columns here about being of influence, and my mind returned to this topic as I was reading The Path by Prof Michael Puert and Christine Gross-Loh.
One of the chapters is titled 'On Influence’, and I immediately turned to it. There we are asked to imagine we are walking through a forest, where off in the distance we see a mighty oak towering above the other trees.
A few yards away is a tiny sapling, growing in the shadow of the larger tree.
“Odds are you will see the larger tree as powerful, steadfast, magisterial, and the sapling as fragile and vulnerable,” the authors suggest.
But when a wind storm comes, the forest floor will be littered with large branches, they note. The oak tree might not be able to withstand the wind, rain and lightning of a severe storm.
In the end, it will topple to the ground, yet the sapling will remain intact.
This is because the sapling bends and shifts with the winds, pliable and soft, standing up again when the storm has passed.
We often assume that to be influential we must be strong and powerful like the oak tree, asserting ourselves and bending others to our will.
But there is another way, one that does not require the prevalence of strength and power.
Puert and Gross-Loh tell us that true power comes from “understanding the connections between disparate things, situations and people,” and they go further, pointing out that “we are also capable of making new connections, to generate new realities and new worlds”.
Being the influential architects of these interconnected worlds by developing relationships is how we become powerful – and influential – leaders. Sustainable ones.
Over-relying on the authority of power will lead people to resent you. They will become timid and fear innovating, taking decisions and making mistakes.
They will be inhibited and compliant, tell you what you want to hear, develop resentment and disengagement.
So when your office is one where you are “in charge”, with others looking up to you as the big strong oak tree that tells them what to do and how don’t become either overwhelmed or big-headed.
Don’t be the powerful grim-faced oak tree, who barks directions and instructions, scolds and cajoles, “instils” and “inculcates” rather than “nurtures” and “nudges”, or you will eventually crash to the ground.
It’s OK to have a big stick, but keep it in your back pocket in case it’s needed, not as the default tool for imposing yourself. Or you may well end up being, as they say, “in office but not in power”.
Like the sapling, sway. Be flexible and agile, and not only when young and junior. As you take on higher and higher leadership responsibilities remain so without becoming a stubborn rigid oak tree that refuses to be influenced by others.
Such resistance will be a sign of weakness and insecurity.
Puert and Gross-Loh also caution us against being over-ambitious, as this generates unhealthy competition and win-lose power struggles.
This does not mean we should lack ambition, just that it should not be selfish and manipulative, about getting ahead of others, but be in the long-term collective good of the group.
If we are over-ambitious and led by the wrong values, we may well grow taller than the other trees for some time. But sooner or later the other trees will resent being overshadowed by us.
So beware. Provide protection from the elements for the lower saplings, helping them feel secure. As the influencer, bring people together and don’t dominate them.
Be the connector, the integrator, remain humble and adequately vulnerable, and ask more than tell.
Be the oak tree as described in the Bible and elsewhere down the ages as one that is strong and stable, symbolising justice and honesty.
Above all create a high-trust culture, one where people are trustworthy and therefore trusted, where competence and confidence are developed, allowing the circles of influence of each tree, irrespective of size, and of the forest as a whole, to expand continually for the greater good.
Wishing you good luck as you manoeuvre through this balance. Touch wood.