Are You an Authoritarian or an Influential Leader?

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by Jocelyn Davis, guest contributor

Command authority is a poor basis for life. Whether you’re atop a corporate jungle gym, reaching for the next rung, or off playing in the sandbox, your long-term professional and personal success is a matter of influence, not dominance.

Some consider influence synonymous with persuasion, but, influence is really the art of getting things done without coercion. More precisely, it’s the ability to engage and guide others in collaborative work without relying on positional authority. To learn how to build and use influence, we’ll be looking to a unique collection of teachers: twelve ancient sages of the East—from Confucius to the Buddha to Gandhi—plus an assembly of present-day experts from around the world.

Influence is strength without force, requiring neither title nor resources. When exercised at advanced levels, it is both quiet and powerful. A master speaks softly, walks lightly, and has no need of a big stick, yet collective success hinges on the master’s words and deeds, and when the master’s work is done (says the sage Laozi) the people all say, “We did it ourselves.”

What does quiet influence look like in practice? Here’s an example.

Sensei with a Racket

Bjorn Borg, tennis champion of the 1970s and ’80s, was facing off against the up-and-coming John McEnroe. It was the summer of 1979 (writes Gerald Marzorati for the New York Times Magazine) and the two were meeting for the third time, in an indoor tournament in New Orleans. They were young: Borg was 22, McEnroe, 20. McEnroe, already infamous for his on-court tantrums, was acting true to form, flinging his racket and abusing the officials. “I was getting all worked up and nutty,” he told a reporter afterward. The score was 5-5 in the third and deciding set when Borg beckoned McEnroe to the net. McEnroe thought Borg was going to rebuke him, but instead, Borg simply put an arm around his shoulders and said: “It’s OK. Just relax. It’s OK. It’s a great match.”[1]

With a few short words and seemingly without effort, Borg undid McEnroe’s tangle of rage and anxiety. It was a turning point for McEnroe; in that moment, he later said, he realized that “if we could keep lifting our games, I didn’t have to worry about the crowd or the linesmen or anything.”[2]   He went on to win set and match, but the change went deeper: henceforth he was civil with Borg on and off the court, and to this day he refers to Borg as his “great” rival. True, he was still McEnroe, but he was a better McEnroe: a player who would be ranked, with Borg, among the best of all time. His view of the sport, and of himself, had been transformed.

How did Borg do it? Not by force, nor through manipulative tactics. He didn’t craft a scheme or map out a plan to educate his opponent in appropriate court behavior. He didn’t exactly do anything. Rather, he simply was: was focused, was observant, was reassuring, was appreciative, was calm. His words, tone, and body language were aligned, all perfectly suited to the time and all unmoved by McEnroe’s storming. “Rest established in the self,” says the Bhagavad Gītā. No amount of pushing or pulling is more powerful than that sense of rest.

Imagine the effect had Borg used the same words but yelled them at McEnroe from the baseline: “IT’S OK! JUST RELAX!” (To such a display, I think McEnroe would have reacted as my dog Cassie did when she yipped at a house guest and he shouted, “Jesus, relax!” Cassie never relaxed in his presence again.) Imagine, too, what would have happened had Borg put his arm around McEnroe’s shoulders and delivered a solemn lecture about how he needed to stop worrying about the officials, how he should take a few deep breaths, how his game would never improve if he wasted energy on these ridiculous tantrums, and so on. The gesture may have been right, but the words and tone would have been all wrong.

Many can talk the talk. Some can walk the walk. But only a master influencer can—how shall we say?—be the being.

In retirement, Borg seemed to lose some of his equilibrium. He nearly went bankrupt as a result of failed business ventures and in 2006 put his Wimbledon trophies and two of his winning rackets up for auction in an attempt to raise funds.[3] Fellow tennis champions Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi offered, tactfully, to buy the memorabilia in order to keep them together. But it was McEnroe who reportedly made the difference by calling his old friend and rival and confronting him, in as few words as Borg had used in that 1979 match, though in blunter style: “Have you gone mad? What the hell are you doing?”[4]

After that conversation, Borg bought back his trophies from the auction house.

The lesson at the net had come full circle. The grasshopper had become, for one phone call at least, the sensei.

The Authority Myth

Authority isn’t the same as power. Power is the might (the ability to make things happen), whereas authority is the right (to rule or lead). The two often overlap, but rarely completely. An effective con artist, for example, has lots of power but little authority. An ineffectual executive has lots of authority but little power. A manager’s title gives us the right to issue orders but doesn’t mean our orders will be carried out as we envisioned—or at all.

“Being the boss means I can execute on my ideas,” we think. “All I have to do is command it, and it will be so.” That’s the authority myth, and our belief in it has a tendency to escalate: “They aren’t doing what I told them, so I’ll issue clearer instructions . . . They still aren’t, so I’ll shout louder . . . What’s wrong with these people? Now I’ll have to punish someone!” And the beatings will continue until morale improves, as the saying goes.

I’m not saying managers shouldn’t give assignments or that a commanding leadership style is never appropriate. After all, if you have formal authority, people expect you to do something with it. Team members expect their leader to wield authority on their behalf and to their benefit, when possible. And a sense that someone is firmly and legitimately in charge provides confidence in a crisis.

The best leaders, however, don’t rely on command authority, because (as we’ll see) its outcomes are neither as good nor as sustainable as the outcomes of influence. Even benignly exercised authority can get in the way of influence. Commands and instructions are unwieldy things. We can issue them with all the vigor and skill at our disposal, but most are like badly served tennis balls: they hit the net or go wide, ending up on the ground, inert.

Jocelyn Davis is an author, speaker, and the former head of R&D for a global leadership development consultancy. Her upcoming book is Insubordinate: 12 New Archetypes for Women Who Lead. Learn more at

[1] Marzorati, Gerald. “Strung Together: Why Rivalries in Tennis Are the Most Intense and Intimate in All of Sports.” New York Times Magazine, August 23, 2011.
[2] Ibid., 32
[3] “Borg to Auction off Wimbledon Trophies.”, March 3, 2006.
[4] “McEnroe fick Borg pa andra tankar.” DN Sport (in Swedish), March 28, 2006.

Adapted from The Art of Quiet Influence by Jocelyn Davis, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishers, 2019. All rights reserved.

What are your experiences with authoritative leaders and influential leaders? Please share with us in the comments!

1 comment

Burt Hadlock

There is indeed a delicate dance for leaders where influence is concerned. A leader in the act of influencing a decision or action should be open to alternatives, especially if the influence presents in a manner considered to be collaborative such as a brainstorming session. If a desired outcome or action is already known to the leader, then in many cases simply stating the plan with a genuine interest in hearing feedback or concerns is more kind. Team members will become less willing to offer ideas and feedback if they come to believe the results of such collaborations are often predetermined. As mentioned, they may come to feel manipulated, coerced or without influence if the leader appears to be trying to build consensus for a predetermined outcome and consistently chooses a predetermined outcome that an apparent consensus did not form around.

Team members will often be happy to follow a benevolent dictator's direction rather than be subject to a series of efforts designed to create the impression that the team choose or had influence on the outcome. Providing the decision or direction with an explanation and an appropriate level of transparency will positively influence team culture.

Influence to me has to do with reminding the team to consider company values, ethics, strategies and goals. These elements exist to influence our thinking and leaders would do well to bring awareness of their value to the team in attempts to bring influence. 

Influence can come through the act of providing a decision. Clear, transparent decisions become an example for team member decisions. The same can be true with efforts to influence when there is a generosity of spirit to let the individual or team arrive at a choice which may differ from the leader's original expectation.

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