Control v/s-Influence-Three levels of Leadership


“A great man is always willing to be little” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Control-vs-InfluenceLeaders wish their team members remain loyal, committed and enthused to contribute more. However for most leaders, the painful truth strikes after some time; the followers leave the leader and in worst situations defy or challenge the authority, and may even sabotage or work against the former leader. What goes wrong in the leader-follower dynamics? And how can a leader- be a parent, employer, or teacher- ensure a sustained influence over his or her followers?

To better appreciate the leadership subtleties we need to examine the three levels at which leaders operate in their relationship with the followers

‘Fear’ tool- coercive power

In a desperate attempt to get compliance, a leader might resort to the ‘big stick’ or ‘fear’ approach; followers follow because they are afraid of what might happen to them if they don’t do what they are asked to do. A follower may fear that something good may be taken away from him or something bad might happen to him if he doesn’t follow the dictates of the leader. This may be expedient and may even seem to work at the time. However it’s absolutely ineffective in the long run. Very rarely you would find leaders publicly endorse this method, yet many succumb to the temptations of using force, for it gives instant results. However, the loyalty generated by using fear is superficial; when ‘no one’s looking’ or the threat is no longer present, the follower may rebel or even consciously damage the interests of the leader.

We’ve heard of instances when disgruntled employees, feeling unjust manipulation by their superiors at work force, acquiesce for some time but plot to cause trouble. In one case, an employee, on the night he left the job, deftly wrecked the operating systems and destroyed sensitive programmes, resulting in losses worth millions of dollars for the organization he just quit.

I knew a friend whose father exercised tight controls over his children and never offered a platform for honest and open communication; leave alone express and reinforce love and affection in the relationship. Few years later, as the children grew to be independent; they ignored the father and broke all connections. As he grew older, the humbled parent wished his children loved him but realized he just couldn’t draw any social mileage out of them now. They rebelled, and went their own ways.

‘Fairness’ principle- convenience based approach

In this approach, the followers follow the leader because he offers a mutually beneficial relationship. The followers have something the leader wants, like time, money, talent, and resources, and the leader has something they want, say money, promotions, security or opportunity. Each attempts to maintain their part of the bargain with the belief and desire to get their needs fulfilled from the other. Most organizations, from billion dollar corporations to a small family unit are fuelled by this utility based approach.

Through this approach, a leader replaces ‘control’ with ‘influence’. However this also has serious limitations because here relationships are fostered on individualism rather than team work and group effectiveness because each person pays attention to his own perspective, needs and desires.

As a teenager I was connected to the youth wing of a political party and noted this utility tool actively followed by the leader. Almost all who supported him had an agenda to achieve; some wanted admission in prominent colleges, others looked for more money. And he wanted young men and women to hold protest marches and campaign for his people during student elections in the university. The relationship seemed to work well as long as the promise of the leader gave hope to the students. Many however deserted the leader and his party when either their desired agenda got fulfilled or when they perceived their needs weren’t being met. The party’s ideals and values weren’t shared by the followers; they only offered lip service loyalty.

Of course this approach can help sustain relationships, whether business or personal, but only as long as there are payoffs for both parties. Unfortunately I witnessed the youth wing politics in college take an ugly turn when few followers filed cases against the leadership and eventually the court had to enforce ‘fairness’. This is the worst side of convenience based approach to leadership.

‘Servant’ principle- influence through character

Sustained, positive influence over the followers is only possible when the leader is trusted by people; when individuals perceive the leader to be honourable. If a leader’s character and vision generates deep belief and acceptance from the followers, and awakens a natural desire to be led, then leadership is truly successful. Such followers buy the goals communicated by the leader; they share the vision of the leader. Such a leader is followed not out of blind faith or robotic obedience but from wholehearted commitment, and a desire to do what the leader wants because he and his cause are believable.

How can one become such a leader? A leader with strong foundational basis of being a ‘servant’ can exercise the greatest influence. ‘Servant’ is not a popular word in academic, management or corporate circles, but spiritual leadership holds the ‘servitude’ principle as the most sacred for any relationship to meaningfully sustain and generate positive life enhancing experiences.

Almost all of us have experienced this in a relationship with a friend, teacher or a parent who selflessly served us and thus attracted our hearts to believe in them and the ideals they strived for. A leader, who truly desires to serve and has a deeply held mission that is in sync with timeless principles, attracts followers who naturally love him or her.

Some management gurus may use ‘servant’ principle as a technique for most effective leadership. Sorry!, being a servant is not a tool; it’s not a manipulative technique that you can bring into play when other techniques have failed; it’s a sacred virtue that can’t be fabricated ad hoc through some text book formulas. Sincerity cannot be faked for long. Eventually leaders reveal themselves; what a leader intrinsically is, the substance of his character is known to the follower, beyond what the leader can do for his follower. His character generates the trust and followers love him.

Radhanath Swami often gives the example of his spiritual teacher, Srila Prabhupada who served his students with deep love and care. He cooked for them, guided them tirelessly, and travelled extensively to help them in their spiritual lives, even at the advanced age of eighty. This selfless spirit of sacrifice attracted the hearts of thousands of youth who joined him and dedicated themselves to his mission. Some of his followers were from wealthy families, yet agreed to live with meagre facilities while undertaking projects for him at the remote Indian villages and challenging situations in Africa and Europe. Even forty five years after his departure, Srila Prabhupada continues to draw more dedication from his followers and is also continually inspiring more followers to join his mission of service to God and humanity.


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