What is the most important characteristic about a person that makes them a truly great leader?

Is it their position or title? Work ethic? Management style? Paycheck?

Great leaders are often endowed with many different skills and habits that help them succeed. However, the most important skill a leader can possess cannot be found in any of the above. Your position and paycheck have little to do with your actual ability to lead. You management style is important, but it’s not the crux of great leadership, and neither is work ethic.

The answer is influence.

What We Mean By Influence

Let’s make it clear that influence and power are not the same thing. Influence isn’t the ability to get people to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Influence doesn’t inspire fear, or turn followers into slaves, nor does it lie or manipulate. Influence is quite different.

Influence is what makes your followers not just listen, but hear you. Influence is what gets your followers motivated. It’s what causes them to grow. It encourages progression and inspires action. Influence does not demand respect; it earns it, and accepts it benevolently.

Influence is transcendent; it’s not contingent upon the other qualities, skills, and qualifications we think about when we think about leadership. With influence, your identity as a leader remains even if the title goes away, even if the paychecks stop coming in. When you gain influence, you become a leader for life, no matter where you are. It gets into your DNA, and becomes a part of your person.

Think for a second about someone like Jon Stewart from The Daily Show. Politics and opinions aside, Jon Stewart is a man of great influence in our modern time for a large number of people. He started off as the comedic host of a television show on Comedy Central, but grew to be one of the leading voices in world events and news. “Television host” is the highest title he has ever achieved, and yet he has amassed millions of dedicated followers. Even when he steps down from his show, he will still hold that influence and carry it with him wherever he goes.

The same can be said about all the great influencers of our time. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a small time preacher who grew to lead a nation in one of the most prolific and successful campaigns for human rights. Mother Teresa was a poor nun in Calcutta, but because of her charity, love, and devotion, she has influenced people all over the world.

How to Gain Influence

Anyone can build influence as a leader, but it doesn’t happen instantly. As John C. Maxwell, one of the leading voices in leadership for over 20 years said,

“Influence doesn’t come to us instantaneously; it increases gradually. Nor does influence develop by accident. Instead, it grows as we purposefully take action to earn the trust and win the respect of others.” (Read full article at JohnMaxwell.com)

Gaining influence requires action. It does not just descend upon you, you have to work for it.

In the article quoted above, Maxwell says that to build influence you have to help and encourage others to grow and be bigger than themselves. You have to be a navigator, and help others through projects and tasks. Spot problems, look ahead, and plan. You have to connect with people; reach out instead of waiting for them to come to you, and empower others with positivity. Negative actions and words are not conducive to gaining influence.

But apart from interacting with others, you can build influence by adding value to yourself. Consider new directions you can take that utilize your skills. Recognize what needs to be fixed, finished, or developed in your business and then find or create the tools and solutions needed to accomplish those tasks.

In all that you do to build your influence, you have to be genuine. As we said, gaining influence isn’t about gaining power. Gaining influence is about building something within yourself that can help make your workplace, your community, and the world a better place.