Good leadership is essential to the member-based nonprofit movement, but sometimes you need to lead when you don’t have any direct authority—such as when you need to motivate your community to action to support a new program or initiative. In those cases, leading with influence can help you inspire the action that’s necessary to fulfill the mission and goals of your YMCA, JCC, or community centers.Leading with influence is all about taking engagement to the next level. It’s about engaging your community and then leveraging that engagement to drive the specific outcomes that you’re looking for. What is the point of engaging others or in making connections if you are not influencing them toward meaningful action? A fruitless interaction - or worse, a negative interaction – does nothing to deliver your mission. Every interaction should be influential: it should motivate people donate to your organization, sign up for your program, or just take charge of their own health and well being.


Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why says, “…the first criterion for any leaders is that they should have the desire to lead. And by ‘lead” I don’t mean that the would-be leaders simply wants to be in charge or stand as the figurehead; true leadership is about service, accountability and sacrifice.”To communicate or lead through influence, one must:

  1. Imagine a better tomorrow – When you are leading through influence, vision is necessary. When we think of people with vision, we think of people like Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, Jr., Teresa of Calcutta, Eleanor Roosevelt, and George Williams (founder of the YMCA). Casting yourself in the same light as those visionaries can be paralyzing, but there’s good news: your vision doesn’t have to be that big. All of us, every day, catch a glimpse of ways in which the world could be better. What if you found a way to teach more kids to swim and reduce drownings in your community? What if you could work with local doctors to get prescriptions to participate in your programs? A great example of a small vision is the Little Library movement. People place boxes in their neighborhood that neighbors can use as a lending library. People are invited to take a book, and leave a book. The idea is simple and small, but it has a huge impactful in the community.
  2. Inspire others to see it – Once you’ve caught a glimpse of a better tomorrow, don’t ask others to join your team. Instead, convince them that you’re already on the same team by showing them the vision, letting it resonate with them, and having them get excited. Letting people see your vision as their own won’t convert everyone into a champion of the idea, but it ensures that those who do see it really, truly see it. But practice some discretion in who you try to win to your cause. To lead with influence, you have to have a basis of trust and relationship. Jim Rayburn, the founder of YoungLife, recognized this in his work with American high school students in the 1950s. He saw adults expect to be listened to just because they’re adults, and he realized that no one had an intrinsic right to be heard. We each have to “earn the right to be heard.”
  3. Foster a common identity – Once you have people rallied behind the cause, you have to forge them into a community that can execute together. Imagine this like a pick-up basketball game. Nobody organizes a pick-up game; people just come to the park, sort themselves into teams, and have fun. Leading with influence can be the same way. You give people a chance to connect and do something together, but you don’t mandate how. This can be tough, as we’re taught in western culture that the leader is the decider. But to see your better tomorrow become reality, you don’t have to have perfect alignment; you just have to share the vision and be headed to the same endpoint. Leading with influence is directional, not prescriptive.
  4. Let go of control – To truly be directional, you have to be willing to give up control. Leading with influence is all about finesse. Captain David Marquet of the US Navy understood this when he took command of the Santa Fe, which was, at the time, the worst performing US nuclear submarine. Under his leadership, the Santa Fe went from “worst to first.” Marquet didn’t accomplish such an astounding turnaround by tightening his grip, revising the standard operating procedures, and mandating compliance. Instead, he loosened his grip, trusting people to make good decisions, and letting them organize themselves within the bounds of their common goal. As a leader, this approach can be terrifying and counterintuitive, but if we want to grow the capacity of our organization to act in ways that drive the mission, it’s essential. “When we give away control, followers become leaders, and doers become thinkers,” said Captain Marquet. In volunteer-led organizations, more leaders means more mission impact.
  1. Lead from the trenches – At a certain point, leading with influence goes viral. You’ve inspired people to see a better tomorrow, rallied them to be a team in pursuit of that vision, and given them the chance to lead themselves in pursuing it. From that point on, you take a back seat role and let things play out. But that doesn’t mean you become passive. Instead, you keep your eye on the vision, periodically assessing the group’s efforts towards that vision, and tweak, nudge, encourage, and finesse as need. Your goal, ultimately, becomes to help the people accomplish the work. As Lao Tzu wrote, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, the people will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”

Leading with influence isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most effective methods of leadership for bringing about change in a group of people or a community, and it can help you engage the people around you in your organization’s mission and purpose.

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