This chapter considers leadership to be a social influence process that derives from multifarious sources, manifests itself in a variety of forms, and generates outcomes both extraordinary and commonplace. However, it cuts through some of influence’s complexities by distinguishing between two oft-contrasted forms of influence: the direct and the indirect (Falbo, 1977; Kipnis, 1984). Military leaders, as legitimate authorities in the services, can and do issue orders to subordinates who are duty-bound to follow those orders. Politicians speak directly to their constituents, explaining their policies and asking for support. Team leaders identify the subtasks that must be completed by the group as it pursues its goals, and then assign different members of the team to each subtask. But other leaders influence their followers in more subtle and less perceptible ways. They rarely issue any orders or directives, but instead put in place organizational procedures and structures that constrain their followers’ actions in ways that often go unnoticed. Their persuasive messages convince listeners not by presenting rational arguments and information, but by appealing to their emotions and unconscious motivations. And some lead by setting an example that they hope others might follow. For every leader who orders, demands, and requires is a leader who persuades, cajoles, and maneuvers.

This chapter applies this basic assumption—that leaders influence others in ways that range from the direct to the indirect—to the analysis of influence in two stages. The chapter first reviews, albeit briefly, the historical antecedents of the scientific study of influence. Early investigators, intrigued by the sometimes surprisingly substantial impact of one person on many others, examined such topics as propaganda, persuasion, contagion, social climates, and suggestion. These investigations documented the many ways in which leaders influence others, but highlighted one of the paradoxes of influence: indirect forms of influence are often veiled within the situation yet they are just as powerful as direct ones. The second section of the chapter further explores this paradox by examining three topics that have attracted the enduring interest of contemporary social psychologists: persuasion, compliance, and obedience. Each of these forms follows its own path to influence; persuasion, for example, relies more on communication of information, compliance on extracting acquiescence, and obedience on acceptance of authority. But this chapter highlights their commonality: All three draw on both direct and indirect social influence processes to achieve results.

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Copyright © 2014 Palgrave Macmillan. This book chapter first appeared in Conceptions of Leadership: Enduring Ideas and Emerging Insights, by George R. Goethals, Scott T. Allison, Roderick M. Kramer, and David M. Messick, 185-200. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

The definitive version is available at: Palgrave Macmillan.

Full citation:

Forsyth, Donelson R. "How Do Leaders Lead? Through Social Influence." In Conceptions of Leadership: Enduring Ideas and Emerging Insights, edited by George R. Goethals, Scott T. Allison, Roderick M. Kramer, and David M. Messick, 185-200. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.