Lessons From Peter Drucker

How to lead without leading

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 05/01/2014

Leading indirectly can sometimes be far more effective than giving direct orders or instructions. They may not be as straightforward regarding your aims, your means, or both. This does not necessarily make them wrong when they benefit the mission and those you lead.

It does reemphasize that your leadership must be for the benefit of others, not yourself. Indirect influence can more risky than any direct method of influence because your intent may be unclear and much less is under your control.

Still, this risk is acceptable when other direct influence tactics either can’t be used, aren’t working, or are less desirable.

The Indirection Influence Tactic

The indirection influence tactic is used when your authority is limited in the situation and those you want to lead will resist a more direct influence tactic.

I heard a story once about a woman who was poised on the suspension of a bridge, about to commit suicide. A policeman below talked to the woman and tried to persuade her to come down with logic and failed. He tried to order her down.

That didn’t work either.

He tried negotiation and involvement. Nothing.

Finally, he called up and said: "Lady you can jump if you want, but I sure wouldn’t want to jump into that dirty water. It’s full of sewage and garbage, and smells awful."

She immediately hesitated, and then climbed back down, where the police officer was able to use persuasion to get her to safety. That’s a good example of use of the indirection influence tactic.

Children use indirection very effectively

Do you have children? You know when they begin to be particularly nice, offer to do extra work, or tell you how well you look, watch out! You are about to be led by the indirection influence tactic.

Your children have no formal power in the family. As parents, the formal power is yours. But you are being led by the informal power of charm.

Do you know where you are being led? You may not know, but you soon will. Chances are your son wants to borrow the car, or your daughter wants to go out on a date in the middle of the week. Or, it may be something else.

When our son was about twelve, he became very interested in computers. Neither my wife nor I owned one at that time, and they were expensive. Even a used Apple with laughable memory compared with today’s systems cost at least $1000.

Our son talked about computers all the time. He got books and magazines and read about computers. He took a special course on computers given at summer school for older students. He wanted a computer . . . badly.

He started saving his money. But there isn’t a lot that a twelve-year-old can do to earn money. Even the paper routes of my youth, which was my way to cash, are generally no longer available.

So, working every day after school, he started doing odd jobs going door to door. My wife and I calculated that at the rate he was going, it would take years for him to come up with the money. But he kept at it for several months, and continued eating, living, and breathing computers.

"Maybe we should just buy him one," suggested my wife. "No way," said I. "They cost too much money. He’ll earn enough eventually." Yeah, right.

One day, I walked into his room to find it spotlessly clean. Moreover, not only was everything in order, but a several tables had been set against the wall with nothing on them. A straight back chair was placed before the center table.

"What’s this," I inquired. Big mistake, that question. "It’s for my computer," Nimrod answered. I turned around and left the room immediately. That afternoon, my wife and I got a "Recycler" newspaper that listed used items for sale. That evening, our son had his computer. Note, he had never asked for one. But, our 12 year old had led us where he wanted using the indirection influence tactic.

How to influence through enlistment

With the enlistment influence tactic, you just ask. It works in situations where you don’t have the power, or may have the power, but may not want to use it. Just asking works in more situations than you might think.

Not too long ago a social scientist looked at the motivation one person used in getting others to do things. He found that frequently the logic for persuading does not need to be perfect. The person doing the persuading only has to give a reason for wanting the action performed.

During one study, this scientist discovered that many people would allow someone to cut ahead of them in a line to make copies on an office copier only if a reason were given. Did the reason have to be compelling? Hardly. The person had only to say: "Can I go ahead of you because I have to make copies?"

I know this sounds crazy, but apparently the key was simply to give a reason, any reason. Just giving the reason was itself sufficiently persuasive. What the reason was wasn't particularly important. But just asking is frequently effective, and if you have a good reason for your request, so much the better.

Redirection is tied with emotion

The leader using redirection doesn't want to reveal the real reason for the action he wants done. He wants to redirect those he leads because if he does not do this it will have a negative impact of one kind or another.

Let's say there are two organizations whose offices are located right next to each other. The members of these organizations are constantly bickering. The fact that they are located so close to one another allows increased opportunity for hostile contact.

So, having their offices moved away from one another physically separates the organizations.

Does the memo announcing their move state that they are being relocated due to their bickering? Of course not. The stated reason is probably "efficiency," or "better space utilization."

Redirection is also used when firing senior managers. Senior executives are rarely officially fired. Rather, they are given new assignments. We say that they are "kicked upstairs."

This is a perfectly legitimate tactic with many advantages. We preserve the feelings of the fired manager to the maximum degree that we can. We show others that people are important to us. We just don't throw people "under the bus" when they fail. Finally, an individual unsuitable for one job can do a superior job at a different time and at a different place.

For instance, Ulysses S. "Sam" Grant was the man that Lincoln finally found to beat Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. To beat Lee, Grant also used the tactic of redirection to influence his men.

At his first battle against Lee at the head of the Army of the Potomac, Lee won the day and Union forces retreated. As they retreated out of the Wilderness the Union columns got only as far as the Chancellorsville House crossroad. There they encountered a squat, bearded general smoking a cigar and sitting on horseback.

As the head of each regiment came abreast of him he took out his cigar and pointed to the right fork. That's where they went. They thought they were retreating, but the right fork led right back into battle against Lee's flank. That was redirection physically as well emotionally.

The influence tactic of deflection

In using the deflection tactic, the leader gets someone to do something by disclaiming his or her own ability or power to do it. An analyst goes to his supervisor and asks for help in doing some problems. "Gee, I'd like to help," his supervisor says, "but I haven't worked this time of analysis in quite a long time. How would you approach them? Why don't you start out. Maybe I'll remember a little."

So the analyst begins to work the analysis. Whenever he gets stuck, his leader gets him going again. The supervisor used the deflection strategy to get the analyst to learn to do the job and to do the job at the same time.

When to use the four indirect influence tactics

Remember that indirect tactics can be risky. They should only be used for the benefit of your people or your organization, never yourself. They are most suitable for situations where direct influence tactics either can't be used, won't work, or are less effective, or to make direct tactics more effective.

One influence tactic is not the best under all conditions. Any of these tactics may be the best depending on the many factors in any leadership situation. So in every case you must consider all options all factors in deciding which tactic or combination of tactics to use.

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 05/01/2014

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