The Difference Between Leadership and Influence

Jun 12, 2023

Entire industries have developed around the exertion of influence.

The lobbying industry tries to influence the government. Advertisers persuade consumers to spend their money on certain products or services. Politicians employ nationwide telemarketing campaigns to sway last-minute voters. Parents attend seminars aimed at influencing the way they influence their children.

Business analysts do market research and hire focus groups to study what is influencing the customer. Doctoral students examine the hidden factors behind change in education, sociology, history, and many other fields.

It’s all influence.

Dictionary definitions of influence include “a power indirectly or intangibly affecting a person or course of events,” and the more vague “to cause a change in the character, thought, or action of; to have an effect upon.” I also ran across this one—“an occult ethereal fluid believed to flow from the stars and to affect the fate of men.”

I like that last one—influence is someone affecting us and we’re not exactly sure how.

Let me define it another way, though. Influence is a person’s ability to shape people and mold outcomes.

Influence is morally neutral (can be used for good or evil), but it always involves both relationships and results.

The Difference Between Leadership and Influence

So is influence just a fancy term for leadership? No. We often put the two together, but they are two separate entities.

Sure, you have the Abraham Lincolns of the world who are influential leaders. But for every Abraham Lincoln, you have a Vincent van Gogh, Franz Schubert, and Karl Marx—people of massive influence who had no leadership position and even died in obscurity.

Summary: You can influence without being a leader, and you can lead without influencing, but you can’t be a good leader without influencing.

Leadership comes from a title whereas influence does not depend on education, position, or financial situation.

Here are some other distinctions between the two:

  • Leadership is visible; influence is out of sight
  • Leadership is usually conscious; influence is often unconscious
  • Leadership is contained; influence crosses boundaries
  • Leadership is immediate; influence is long-term
  • Leadership is public; influence is often behind the scenes
  • Leadership is formulaic; influence is mysterious
  • Leadership captivates culture; influence drives culture
  • Leadership is the tip of the iceberg; influence is the mass under the surface
  • Leaders act on people; influence affects people and outcomes

A few years back Harvard Business Review spotlighted influence and leadership in the article “Connect, Then Lead.” Amy Cuddy and two others identify the importance of influence over leadership. Leadership rises from authority, but influence is born of connection. If people feel connected, they open themselves up to the influence of others.

To influence, you begin with connection. You connect with people and begin to affect their actions.


I draw a dotted line between leadership and influence because there is a lot of overlap between these two words. More and more people are recognizing that leaders can wield tremendous influence but that it is only potential. The best leaders strive not for leadership (which is given to them) but for influence (which is earned).

Ken Blanchard wrote, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” Michael Hyatt says, “Aspiring leaders would do well to stop focusing on control and figure out how to expand their influence.” John Maxwell puts it plainly— “Leadership is influence.”

To be specific, I love what Joseph Crenny says about Tim Tassopoulous, who, over the span of 40 years went from a Chick-Fil-A team member to the president of the restaurant giant. He says this, 

“Tim…understands that success comes down to whether one of his 50,000 front-line associates with a few discretionary minutes decides to lean against a wall or clean tables. Tim’s success or failure as a leader does not come down to whether he is charismatic, visionary, or inspirational but to whether people behave in ways that improve results. Period.”

Influence is about people and results.

Let me put it this way: Leadership and influence are both needed, but influence is bigger, deeper, and a more difficult skill to cultivate than stereotypical leadership. And if I had to choose between whether I could exert leadership or influence, I’d pick influence every time.

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