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10 Ways Leaders Blow Their Influence

10 Ways Leaders Blow Their Influence
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
You realize by now that influence is a precarious thing. What can take years to build can be lost or squandered overnight. It happens every day to leaders, and often they’re the last to see it. So how do you end up losing influence as a leader, without even trying? Well, let’s first clarify how influence and leadership work. I believe John Maxwell is right, leadership is influence. If you want to know whether you’re a leader, look over your shoulder to see if anyone’s following. If they are, you’re a leader, regardless of your title. And if not, you probably aren’t, regardless of your title. Your leadership rises and falls with your influence. Period. Second, I also think Andy Stanley is completely accurate when he says that leadership is always a stewardship; it’s temporary, and we’re accountable. Did you catch that? Our influence is temporary. It was given to us by God for a purpose. It can be taken away. One day we will give an account for how we used it. Leaders who take that seriously, I think, become the leaders most worth following. And the most effective leaders also realize you can squander your influence quickly, without trying.

Here are 10 easy ways to lose your influence.

1. Make ‘Likability’ a Goal

Being liked is an occasional by-product of leadership; it is not the goal of leadership. In fact, some of the most effective leaders are not liked. And it’s not just because of a ‘personality defect.’ Moses, Jesus, Paul and most of the prophets were, in many seasons, hated by the people they led. That kind of affection would crush many of the ‘leaders’ I know in the church today. This is no excuse to be an arrogant, brash or uncaring leader. Bully pulpits or platforms are not the goal either. But sometimes, even when you lead with both humility and conviction, you will still not be liked. That’s OK. If you try to be liked by everyone, you will ultimately stand for nothing and lead no one anywhere significant.

2. Compromise Morally, in Big or Small Ways

There are obvious categories of moral failure that will evaporate your influence instantly; have an affair, steal or commit a crime and you’ll lose influence instantly. You don’t even have to be a Christian leader to fall this way. The headlines are littered with athletes, politicians and public figures who have cheated, lied and broken trust. But aside from ‘major failings,’ small compromises will sap your influence over time as well. Shade the truth. Exaggerate. Do things you wouldn’t want anyone to find out about, even though they’re not illegal. This catches up with you. The people who see you every day get a pretty accurate sense of where your moral compass actually points. And even if people don’t, God does. People want to follow someone with an authentic moral compass. And God wants leaders who really seek him. The more your compass is off, even a little, the more you squander influence.

3. Don’t Do What You Said You Were Going to Do When You Said You Were Going to Do It

Most of us leaders are eager to please. And that can lead to over-promising in the name of not wanting to let anyone down. But over time, even in the small things, when you fail to do what you said you were going to do when you were going to do it, you damage your influence. So, do what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it. It’s the foundation of trust. And trust is confidence. When you break even well-intentioned promises, you erode trust.

4. Only Talk About Your Strengths and Awesomeness

Leaders who only talk about their victories may be influential, but I believe they can be even more influential if they honestly talk about their struggles. People admire your strengths, but they resonate with your weaknesses. Leaders who just talk about their strengths make others feel inadequate, but they also lose credibility with outsiders and younger adults. The next generation knows you don’t have it all together. So tell them (appropriately). One of the talks I give that seems to connect best with people is when I share the things I learned during a season of burnout. It’s paradoxical to me that God uses what was the worst season of my life to help people again and again, but he does. Speak out of your weaknesses in a way that helps people, and you will always have an audience.

5. Let Your Relationship With Christ Get Stale

Listen, keeping a strong spiritual life as a leader is hard. I know. But when I started ministry I told our elders at the time to fire me if they ever sensed my walk with Christ had dried up. Give me a couple of months to get it right, but if I don’t, send me packing. You can’t lead people to a place where you have never been. Trying to do the authentic work of God—without an authentic relationship with God—will eventually kill your church. You don’t have to try to drift away from God. It just happens. So engage. Stay fresh. Love the one who loves you.

6. Criticize Others 

Never build yourself up by tearing other people down. As simple as that sounds, it happens all the time. Church leaders pick a neighboring church to badmouth. Pastors badmouth other leaders. Friends badmouth former friends. Just stop it. Build your life on what you’re for, not what you’re against. Especially when it comes to people.

7. Ignore the People Who Don’t Have Enough Power or Influence to Help You

One of the tests of how well you’re using the power entrusted to you is noticing how well you’re helping the people who aren’t able to help you get ahead. If you’re a social climber—only pursuing people who are equal to or higher than you in status—good luck. Your followers see the social climbing you’re doing. Truly great leaders help those who don’t have the ability to help them back. Strangely, that ultimately gives them even more influence, not to mention the opportunity to reflect the heart of their Father. Not sure how you’re doing? Ask someone who has no power to get you ahead. They’ll tell you. (Especially if the shoe marks on their forehead still hurt.)

8. Be More Interested in Yourself Than Other People

True, there’s something in all of us that wants to make sure we get heard, but if you really want to steward your influence well, be more interested in others than you are in yourself. Ask questions. Remember details. Express an interest.

9. Forget Your Manners 

Sounds like your mama speaking, I know, but she was right. Please and thank you carry an incredible amount of power, even in email. OK, especially in something as mundane as email and text messaging. So does holding the door for others, allowing others to go first, taking the low place at the table, and offering a smile when you first meet someone. I’ll never forget a particular insight by Jeff Henderson. He said, “You can tell an awful lot about someone’s character by how they return the shopping cart.” Yes, you can.

10. Don’t Battle Your Cynicism

Here’s the dilemma. People don’t want to follow cynical leaders. But the more experience you have as a leader, the more things you’ve seen, the more disappointment you’ve faced and the more heartbreak you’ve endured, the more cynical you naturally become. Fight that. The most effective and the most resilient leaders are rarely if ever deeply cynical. If you want to resist cynicism, I list 16 ways to counter it in this post. The easiest way to fight cynicism? Stay curious. The cynical are never curious, and the curious are never cynical. These are 10 ways I see leaders squander their influence without trying. What do you see? Please add to this list in the comments below.