30 Sep

4 Things You Need to Know About Influence

Want to build influence? Or measure it? Here are four things you need to know:

Influence is simple…
which makes it complicated.

At its most simple, influence is the ability to make things happen. But which things? For whom? Over what span of time? Some people influence ideas, some actions. Some influence big actions, some small. Some influence lasts a moment, some lasts a lifetime.

When we talk about influence, and particularly when we talk about measuring it, we have to define our terms…and know the limits.

Influence is contextual.

Someone writes a post. Someone else retweets it. Another person sees the retweet, reads the post, and writes a comment. Still another person finds the post on his own and then follows the commenter’s advice, to the benefit of hundreds of others.

Each person took an action. Each action had an effect. But which action is the most important? Who had the most influence?

(Not so easy, is it?)

Influence depends on the situation and what you care about. The cause (the idea)? The effect (the actions, the results)? Or the connection between the two? Whether building or measuring influence, we need to understand which type of influence is important, and why.

Influence is the product of reach and authority.

To influence the actions of others, you have to have access to them—and they have to perceive you to have some level of authority, either over them or in an area of expertise they value. Popularity helps with access: the more popular you are, the more reach you have, and thus the greater possibility of influence. But popularity doesn’t guarantee influence, it only opens more doors. And it’s ephemeral: tastes change, needs change.

Authority doesn’t guarantee influence either, though you could argue its tie is stronger. Whether granted or earned over time, authority has the potential to intensify influence: authority grants power.

But it’s ephemeral, too. Earned authority—gained over repeated interactions—lasts as long as its integrity and its relevance do. Granted authority (as in the case of a leader or manager), often lasts only as long as the appointment (or the appointee…) does.

Influence requires both reach and authority, to varying degrees. Focusing on only one or the other will leave you seeing half the picture. Or less. Both need attention. And constant maintenance.

(Most) Influence is invisible.

You see a cause. You see an effect. What you can’t see, and never will, is where influence actually happens: in the “and” between the two. You can’t see inside every individual head to know or understand if and how the two relate, because it happens in the back channel. In instant messages, in DMs, in phone calls, emails, and Waves (sniff…). In person, in meetings. At lunches and dinners and breakfasts. Out of town. Out of sight.

That’s why what we can see gets so much attention, and measuring it the cause of such debate. But understand this: for every person consciously exhibiting their influence (and influences), there are just as many (or more) consciously shielding it.

Every King has his Merlin. Every Influencer has her own.

And you’ll likely never really know who they—the real influencers—are.


At heart, influence is something we can only guess at based on what we see. We can throw metrics at it, but that’s like throwing dust at light, trying to see the beam.

Like throwing a sheet at the Invisible Man, trying to see what can’t be seen.

Is that what you see, too? Tell me.

image credit: ~Twon~