Day 5: Musings on Leadership & Influence

Many years ago I gave a talk on being a leader to a group of undergraduates who were in a leadership program a top 10 university. One of them asked me, in that adorably naive way of type A super honor students, how they could get people to follow them as leaders. It was one of those out of sync moments where I had to do a few mental steps to keep myself from laughing out loud at such a superiorly entitled question. When I finally responded I’m sure my answer was a bit of a disappointment- “You’re a leader when others call you that, not before. Leadership is earned.” I’m sure many were puzzled, if respect mattered so much then what in the end, was the use of the elite university program that they were enrolled in? Thankfully no one actually asked me that question- I was, after all, a guest speaker of said program!

Leadership, like influence, is a concept that cannot be defined in a vacuum. Simply listing “Leader” or, for that matter, “Influencer” on a resume without any context is a misnomer. Identifying leaders or influencers should begin with an assessment of community and/or organizational strength. In a democratic system people choose who they are led and influenced by. That’s why communities and healthy organizations are the bell-weathers of true leaders and influencers. Brute strength and force can accomplish only so much- as Travis Kalanick found out to his chagrin.

It’s for this reason that influencer marketing is such a fickle game. The big money is invested in the celebrity influencers but, with a few exceptions, their fleeting popularity is a numbers game with little community to support it.

Influencer marketing is appealing to brands because of its root in human psychology. We listen to certain key people in our lives and trust them when we make purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, the conflation of influencer with celebrity means that more often than not these are not the people being recruited by brands for influencer campaigns. People may be amused by Kim Kardashian and click “Like” but that must not be mistaken for an act of trust. And it’s trust that gets your community to take measurable actions such as supporting a cause, downloading an app (and using it), or making a purchase.

Until brands and agencies alter their approach to influencer marketing- trading in the “Insta-famous” to a verifiable multi-variate analysis- they will consistently fall short of their potential. Influencers can and should be held to a clearly defined return on investment. But it first starts with turning the process of identification upside down and starting with the community not the persona.

Note: I’ve called this post Day 5 – even though I decided to take July 4th off from writing. There is no Day 4. 🙂

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