Leadership: art of influence, not force

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Your supervisor comes into the office and demands that you have Airman Jones' enlisted performance report finished by close of business "or else!" So, you do as you're told. It's not your best effort, but at least the boss will be off your back.

Months later, your new supervisor tells you he really wants you to finish Airman Smith's EPR today. He explains that he attended last month's senior airman below-the-zone promotion board and watched a great Airman lose out on early promotion because of a missing EPR. He knows the next board will happen soon and says Airman Smith has really impressed him. He offers to help you prepare the EPR.

Who would you prefer to work for, Boss 1 or Boss 2?

The answer seems obvious. While there are times when immediate action is required, I believe we use rank and direct orders as a crutch too frequently in lieu of more effective means of communication.

Let's dissect the approach used by Boss 2. He employed four techniques that make up what professor David Gergen, author of "Eyewitness to Power," calls the art of successful persuasion:

Credibility that assures
What gives the boss credibility in this case? First, the Air Force granted him authority by naming him your boss. Additionally, he's served on promotion boards and has acquired inside knowledge of the process.

When combined, these elements attest to his credibility and assure the supervisee. Yet the most important ways a supervisor can earn trust are not based on rank. Technical knowledge and personal proficiency give his subordinates a reason to take him seriously. Developing trust and confidence is essential if he wants to be effective.

Empathy that bonds
The boss uses empathy next to demonstrate the impact of not getting the EPR done on time. He tugs at your emotions. Does it bother you that someone lost out on early promotion because an EPR was not done on time? How would you feel if this happened to you?

Be careful not to overuse empathy. You can only play on heartstrings so many times, but when used very sparingly, empathy can be effective.

Explanations that inform
Boss 2 compliments Airman Smith's performance and explains his plans to push the Airman for early promotion; therefore, he needs the EPR immediately. We can inspire action by providing background information and logical arguments.

When you tell people to "just do it" without an explanation, they're not encouraged to do their best. By demonstrating the importance of an action, persuasion becomes an easy task.

Words, actions that inspire
Getting your own hands dirty can often incite action. Some leaders are great speakers and can use flowery language to motivate. Most of us can't write or speak in glittering prose, but we can all act. When we offer to pitch in and work with our troops, nine times out of 10 they will respond with enthusiasm and commitment.

You now have some new tools to try out the next time your unit is assigned a tough task. Remember persuasion first, direct orders last.

Build your credibility by becoming an expert. Cautiously appeal to an Airman's sense of empathy; but more often, explain your decisions using logic, conviction and factually based arguments. Use words, ideas and actions to inspire and don't be afraid to lend a hand.

If one approach doesn't work, try another, but don't give in to the urge to pull rank. The ability to be more persuasive will make you a more effective person in the office and in all aspects of life.