The art & science of influence

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The art & science of influence

By Peter Cunningham, Co-Director of the Geneva Leadership Alliance

“You can learn all the knowledge in the world about the changes you want to make, but if you can’t influence other people, you will only have frustration to look forward to”

In his most recent book, Thank you for being late, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist & author Thomas Friedman outlines 3 factors that, more than anything else, are shaping the world we live in today: Technological advancements, globalisation and climate change. By extension the world of work is changing too, at different paces for some, but changing nonetheless. We have access to almost anyone we would like to engage with, anywhere. The variety and quantity of actors are growing, as are the complexity and interconnectedness of markets and economies. From a peace and security perspective the same applies to a number of global challenges or ‘wicked problems’ like climate change, resource access issues and the evolving nature of conflict, extremism and crime. For example, my colleague Dr Christina Schori Liang recently wrote about the shift in IS focus toward a “United Cyber Caliphate”1.

The ability to lead and to influence others is no longer the prerogative of ‘the select few at the top’. It is a core capability, no matter what level you work at, and it is fundamental to purposefully engaging with peers, superiors, reports and decision-makers within and outside our own organisations. In fact, organisations are increasingly seeking this capability in the people they select and invest in. Today, maybe more so than ever before, anyone at any level with the right mind-set, skills and tools can influence and mobilise people and achieve greater meaningful and lasting impact.

What influence is and the importance of being able to exercise it

During one of our leadership courses a participant with a military background approached me at the start and, with genuine humility said that during his 20+ years in the armed forces he had received numerous trainings in leadership and had accumulated rather a lot of practice. He therefore did not expect to learn all that much but was happy to participate and contribute. At the end of the programme, in front of his peers he stated:

“Having been seconded to a United Nations peacekeeping mission, I thought I would have much to learn about the technical aspects of the UN and the culture of the country where I was posted. I expected to be pretty good at the leadership side of things but soon found out that in this cross-professional civilian/military environment I wasn’t getting “Yes, sir” responses or even “What should I do?” questions but “Why should I do this?” I need to learn a different kind of leading…and fast. I have to be able to influence people and this is completely new for me.”

Much of the early research on the topic of influence focussed on charisma and while this is certainly a factor, it is by no means the only one. In fact, an over reliance on charisma alone can actually lead to reduced influence2. Most of us will have come across someone during our working lives who was highly charismatic yet who lacked the operational behaviours to sustain their influence over time.

Contemporary research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) concluded that the ability to influence was one of the top leadership capabilities required to be successful. CCL proposes a ‘Core Four’ of leadership capabilities essential to leading anyone, anywhere: Self-awareness, Communication, Influencing and Learning Agility3. This is nothing new, social and behavioural science has been studying and recording the phenomenon of ‘persuasion’ since ancient Greece. Although, to become a great influencer was historically a somewhat risky endeavour. Those who became too good at it often ended up being removed by the political authorities, Socrates being a prime example. Thankfully, in today’s world of mass access to information on how to influence, this outcome is somewhat less likely.


Influence is not reserved for a gifted few. We can all learn to influence better.

In his now famous 2001 Harvard Business Review article Professor of Psychology Robert B. Cialdini referred to six principles of persuasion4:

Liking: people like those who like them back

Reciprocity: people repay in kind e.g. give what you want to receive

Social proof: people follow the lead of similar others

Consistency: people wish to appear consistent to others

Authority: people defer to expertise

Scarcity: people want more of what they can have less of


These are all real but do not occur in isolation. Whether we chose to do so intentionally or not, we all use many of these in varying combinations when interacting with other people. When artfully blended in genuine ways, they are highly effective. However, they can also be somewhat transactional and there is an underlying but extremely crucial factor that is not mentioned in this set of principles.

What I’m referring to is trust. Trust is exchanged between people much like a currency, it can be given and received, built up over time and once lost, hard but not impossible to rebuild. Trust forms the basis of all human relationships and the extent to which you have influence is largely based on the extent to which people trust you and you are willing to trust them. In fact, the more challenging the circumstance, the more important this becomes. There are many ways to build trust; from a leadership point of view integrity is an important one. I define integrity as having well-formed moral principles and being consistent in words and actions in ways that transcend difference.    


Better Influencers make Better Leaders. Join us for the next edition for 2020 September edition of the "Lead and Influence with Impact" course.

Common barriers to influence

There are a number of barriers and distractions to overcome to be able to focus your attention on influencing.  Most of us will recognise these on some level and yet certain people seem better able to navigate these barriers than others. The reality is they have likely practised long & hard and made plenty of mistakes along the way to eventually learn how to overcome them.

Firstly, we tend to be pessimistic about our own ability to influence in the first place. The reality is that humans are socially conditioned to cooperate and therefore remember that this in effect means you have a head start, you’re rolling a boulder downhill, not uphill. If you start with the mind-set that you are able to influence and are genuine in your intent then you are already half way there.

Secondly, the pressures that many of us face in our day to day work can, if we are not purposeful, prevent us from making the time and effort to engage in influential behaviours. Time pressure, either through our own lack of planning or by the volume of demands seemingly placed on us. Choosing and using our means of communication when we have so many methods and tools for communication. All of which (including face to face) can be used or misused. Cognitive load, the amount of things we are required to think about and cope with at any one time affects our ability to focus on engaging meaningfully with, and influencing others.

Thirdly, the differences that arise from the wonderfully cross-cultural environment that many people are exposed to today. It is an environment where the values linked to influence can be significantly different e.g. between individualism and collectivism or high/low power distance or the level of importance placed on hierarchies. People who are more effective at influencing in cross-cultural (and incidentally also cross-professional) environments tend to do 3 things that are different:

  1. Be aware of how their own culture and experience (both personal and professional) influences their view of the world.
  2. Take time to seek understanding of and connection to those cultures that are different to their own.
  3. Invest in building a shared culture with clearly articulated values amongst those who need work and communicate together.

Paying attention and learning to improve how you influence others is at the end of the day a choice. You can choose not to be influenced by this article of course, or you can choose to spend some time paying attention to whom and how you influence, how well it is working for you and how you might benefit from getting even better at influencing.  After all, it will set you apart.


1 Liang, Christina Schori (2017). Unveiling the ‘United Cyber Caliphate’ and the Birth of the E-Terrorist. Georgetown Journal of International Affaires, 18 (3), 11 – 20.

Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Hofmans, J., Kaiser, R.B., & De Fruyt, F. (2018). The double-edged sword of leader charisma: Understanding the curvilinear relationship between charismatic personality and leader effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(1), 110-130.

3 Hallenbeck, George (2017). Lead 4 Success: Learn The Essentials Of True Leadership. Centre for Creative Leadership.

4 Cialdini, Robert B. (2001). Harnessing the Science of Persuasion. Harvard business review 79 (9), ?. 


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.


Peter Cunningham is founder and co-director of the Geneva Leadership Alliance, a partnership that combines Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) expertise on peace, security and global governance with leadership development expertise of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). The mission of this Alliance is to advance the understanding, practice and positive impact of leading in public, private, non-profit organizations and civil society: especially those dedicated to advancing peace and security.