This is a summary of a talk I gave to student-organized “Leaders for Life” program. It addresses key questions to ask when we seek to influence others. In my judgment, the most important question about influence starts with Why! The second most important question about influence starts with Who , focusing on the very people and future colleagues we seek to lead. Only now, questions about What and How come to bear. The great news is: if we got the Why down, and we know about the Who, addressing What and How is a team sport!
I was at the beginning of the graduate school and it was obvious to me my university, which was a lot smaller than UM, did not offer the classes I really needed. I was a student representative and had managed to build students and even faculty support to put two classes on the books – classes that still exist today, by the way. I thought I knew what to do – I began by asking the student leaders for their help and proceeded to summarize class descriptions and curricular goals into a nice document. With that, I proceeded to recruit a professor and together with the professor, I put it in front of the curriculum committee. I thought I had it figured out – the Why? and the Who?.
But, my string of wins came to an abrupt end when I pitched my final class focusing on the physics of plasmas, especially magento-hydro-dynamics – the physics of the atmospheres of stars, the center of the Earth and the physics of flames. I failed big time – my recipe was no longer working. I went back and forth and there was just no hope. We were not going to win this time. I had assembled a core-team and we were convinced that we needed this class and, in fact, it had much broader appeal than any of the classes we already managed to put on the books. All of a sudden it struck me – it was meaningless to try to convince the power structure, we just had to do it. So, I teamed up with my steering committee and set up a class – two hours each week, no professors, no credits. I used my access as a student representative to get a classroom and to advertise it around the department. I still remember the first class, which was to organize. We had about 20 PhD students show up, and two professors. We split the class into 14 2-hour sessions. One of these sessions was a lecture based on a book we chose and the second hour comprised of discussion and showing examples. We signed everybody on, including the two professors. I still remember how hard I worked to teach my one-hour class – it took me almost a week to really understand the subject area.
I was so proud of the group. And the end of the 14 sessions we still had 20 PhD students and 2 professors and we all learned a ton doing this.
See, if you get the Why and the Who right – the What is a lot, lot easier to solve. Here is why: There is a whole team that will support you.
Here is the most common mistake I see: Don’t jump to addressing What questions before you are done with the other ones. Here is the problem: you almost always will have to back up and start over. It is so much easier to make teams believe in a solution they helped create. See, having influence is not about telling others what to do, it is about stimulating a process and help setting a direction so people, based on their own free will can address an issue they truly care about.
I want to take one more minute to ask you a question: What is your biggest strength as a leader and influencer?
Here is one of the most important lessons for you: Your biggest strength as a leader can also be your biggest weakness. For example, I am a quick and fearless decision maker – but, I am impatient and can run over people who don’t deserve it a bit. I know people who are strong because of their operational orientation and they focus on details – but, they can’t see opportunity and are too slow to get off the spot.
Your biggest strength can also be your biggest weakness. The reason you will be successful is not because of a particular strength, but because you manage to build teams that help make up for your weaknesses. We all have them – even you!
I hope you all practice influence and leadership here. When doing so, focus on Why, focus on Who and only then focus on What! Rest assured, you guys are amazing people – otherwise you probably would not have made it in this room. But, you will not be successful if you put your ego in the way of success. Become an influencer for something that is bigger than you! Recognize that success is more important than control and credit is not a conserved quantity – the more you share the more you get!