What makes someone a leader?

The definition of a leader is clear: If they’re following, you’re leading. Otherwise you aren’t. No less an authority than … ahem … your loyal author established this, as those who have read Leading IT: The Toughest Job in the World are aware.

That’s the definition. But what makes someone a leader? Leaders look for ways to affect the course of events. How much they can affect events depends on the circumstance, but those who have leadership in their character and not just their job description know the difference between having authority, making use of it, and depending on it.

Programmers control computers: Once they’ve decided what the computer should do, the only thing standing between them and the computer doing it is writing the right code. Maybe that’s why many of us in IT tend toward the binary in our view of the universe. We are accustomed to controlling computers. If we can’t control other events we’re controlled by them, with little in the way of middle ground.

Experienced leaders know their maximum ability to direct events stops a level short of what programmers have: They might have authority, but that’s a lesser degree of power than control. Authority is tricky in a number of respects. First of all, while you might have the authority to give an employee an order, the employee has the choice to ignore you. More interestingly, the employee can subvert you through malicious obedience. If you aren’t sure what this means, read your company’s policies and procedures manual and imagine just how quickly the organization would grind to a halt if every employee followed every policy and procedure to the letter.

There’s another difficulty with the use of authority that’s frequently missed: Just because you have it doesn’t mean exercising it is a good idea. For example, employers have the legal authority to read every e-mail sent or received by every employee. Doing so, on the other hand, is an exceptionally poor choice: Beyond wasting an immense amount of time it will simply demoralize every employee, except for those who haven’t yet lost their capacity for outrage.

Here’s a piece of good news: Nobody has absolute authority. Everyone answers to someone. The bad news about the good news: It’s rarely me.

The good news about the bad news about the good news is this: If I lack authority, it doesn’t mean I lack all power. Even when I don’t have authority I can often persuade, and in fact the use of persuasion is a more important leadership skill than the ability to wield authority. When you use authority, bossing people around, you can successfully get them to stand where they’re supposed to stand and go through whatever motions you dictate. When you persuade them, on the other hand, they’ll stand where they need to stand under their own power, and figure out the best motions to go through using their own initiative. Among the many benefits is that the leader doesn’t have to work as hard figuring out where everyone has to stand and what motions they need to go through.

Not everyone can be persuaded, of course, no matter how silver-tongued a devil you are. That’s okay. When persuasion isn’t possible … when others simply won’t adopt the course of action you’ve decided is the right one … you can still influence them.

The difference between persuasion and influence is the difference between getting your way and getting what you need. Some in leadership roles are too petulant to settle for mere influence. It’s their way or the highway. More effective ones recognize that the ability to influence — to facilitate a compromise acceptable to all parties — is the essence of what it means to be a truly great leader.

The hierarchy of power is control, authority, persuasion, and influence. Adept leaders operate well at all four levels. Clumsy leaders, in contrast, only act when they at least have authority.

The fifth level of power is to have none — to be a victim. Having no ability to at least influence events is the essence of being victimized by others. Leaders who rely on their authority and aren’t willing to settle for persuasion or influence when the situation calls for them are, interestingly enough, the ones who most frequently feel victimized. Not liking the feeling, they exert control or authority whenever they can. That deprives everyone else of their ability to influence events. Which is to say, unskilled leaders make sure someone is a victim every time.

The only question is who.