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The Law of Influence

September 29, 2010

(Note: This is part of a series based on John C. Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

John C. Maxwell has written a number of books about leading and leadership.  They all have their merits and some of the books will resonate more with some readers than others, but it is his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that really provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number Two (or, Chapter Two as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of Influence.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing More, Nothing Less.”

I find the word “influence” to be a powerful one in the world of conducting. When I teach conducting, I talk in terms of how we, as conductors, influence the sound of an orchestra.  You might hear the word “control” getting tossed about lightly, but it is a plain fact that we don’t actually control much of anything as conductors.  We don’t play the notes; we don’t make any (musical) sound whatsoever from the podium. What we do comes down to influence.  And, another plain fact is that some conductors hold more influence than others.

“If you don’t have influence, you will never be able to lead others.” This opening sentence from Maxwell sums it up best about leadership and conducting. Another way to term it is: Leaders must have followers. History is littered with politicians who have risen to power, with legions of followers, only to see their influence wane, and their effectiveness as a leader wane with it.  If you cannot hold influence, you cannot lead.

Another point Maxwell makes is that a title is not indicative of leadership.  Someone may be promoted to a position of leadership and given a nice title beside their name (say, Music Director or Director of Orchestras) but in Maxwell’s opinion, a title only buys the leader some time – time to increase their level of influence.

One of his points that really stuck with me is this: The person who is titled as leader may not be the actual leader. Go to any meeting, and you can tell who the real leader is by how the room reacts to his/her comments. To this end, he tells an interesting anecdote about one of his first jobs as a church minister. He went to the monthly board meetings, supposedly as the leader, but the real leader in the room was a kindly, older, much more experienced member of the church community.

Maxwell proceeds with his “Five Myths about Leadership”

  1. The Management Myth (leading and managing are not the same thing)
  2. The Entrepreneur Myth (entrepreneurs and salespeople are not necessarily leaders)
  3. The Knowledge Myth (IQ doesn’t equate to leadership)
  4. The Pioneer Myth (Being out in front of the crowd doesn’t mean you are an effective leader)
  5. The Position Myth (It’s not the position that makes the leader; it’s the leader that makes the position.)

Maxwell discusses these myths with a few paragraphs each. I wrote a one-sentence summation for expediency.

Another point, and one that very much applies to us as conductors is, “The very essence of all power to influence lies in getting the other person to participate.” (Quote from Harry A. Overstreet) As conductors, we seek the full participation of our ensembles in every minute, every bar, every moment of the music.  Some conductors can impact this by inspiration or intimidation, or even information (see previous blogpost: What’s your leadership style?).  But, whatever your style of creating participation, it is the great conductors who have the ability to influence ensembles to “buy in” to the process.

Maxwell closes the chapter with a favorite leadership proverb of his: “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.” Are you walking or leading?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2010 1:16 pm


    Great post! I really am enjoying reading your series on Maxwell. I especially appreciate your discussion of influence instead of control when working with an orchestra.

    For my conducting classes, I like to talk about Power but as it is used in physics – the ability/rate at which work is done by a device – lifting a ton, moving a car at a particular speed.

    It is not some secret, mystical thing. A person’s power -as you and Maxwell have so eloquently put it – stems from their ability to influence and to get the work done that needs to be done.

    Lack influence? Then you lack the power to accomplish work.


  2. Ben permalink
    September 30, 2010 11:22 am

    Line 3, paragraph three reads: “You might HERE the word. . . ”

    I like your summation. This sounds like a very interesting book! I know people who talk about John C. Maxwell all the time. He does a lot of seminars and speeches and things across the country, doesn’t he?


    • September 30, 2010 11:42 am

      Got the typo fixed, thanks!

      I love the Maxwell books I have read so far. I think this book very much applies to the business (and art) of conducting.

  3. Liz G. permalink
    October 1, 2010 1:05 am

    The thing I’ve enjoyed about this series is its applicability to multiple fields and areas. In particular, the notion that influence differs from control only subtly is interesting to me. Which is more valuable – your title or your sphere of influence? The answer in this case (or maybe in any case) is quite clear. A great conductor is a master of influence. In fact, they are sometimes so masterful in their abilities that the orchestra may not even notice the extent to which the conductor affects them.

    Also, I was particularly amused by this remark: “we don’t make any (musical) sound whatsoever from the podium”. This brought back a few memories, ha! I’m looking forward to more of this series.

    • Brian permalink*
      October 1, 2010 10:41 am

      Liz, I knew some folks out there would catch the (musical) part where I threw in a little joke. So many conductors snort, grunt, wheeze, sing and such that I believe it is a universal experience for most orchestral players.

      I think your point about leadership via influence in a subtle way is a good one. I have always thought that about teachers, as well. A teacher doesn’t always have to say “Here’s a new lesson,” or “I am going to TEACH YOU NOW.” Gee, the students are there, they probably already expect to get taught! (Ok, not all of them…)


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