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Should You Lead or Influence?

When I was young and idealistic, I had five- and ten-year plans for becoming a prominent leader. As a college professor, I have met many young and idealistic people with similar plans for themselves.

But in a rush to lead, I missed just what leadership means, why I sought it in the first place, and the skills and self-discipline needed before I attained it.

This isn’t unusual. We often see such blind spots in politics, especially among those more eager to hold office—that is, to win—than in the actual leadership needed to hold public service. Such persons are often full of braggadocio, affecting gravity and strength, championing plans and policies they do not really understand or possess.

It needn’t be that way, of course, for many wish to lead rather than merely to control. Just recently I came across a bit of wisdom that would have served me well when in college. Timothy Goeglein, no stranger to politics—he was a top adviser in the George W. Bush White House—explained the important distinction between power and influence: “Power is where someone elects you to a position. Influence is where someone asks you for your opinion.”

Many seek power for the wrong reasons, often from the prisons constructed from their own vice and ignorance of their own character. On the other hand, seeking—and attaining—influence is a difficult challenge, for real influence requires the respect of others and not their fear, it is to be honored for being honorable. Influence—shaping the ideas and actions of others—requires wisdom, character, and self-mastery, especially mastering the desire to control.

We can find great insight into how to achieve influence, properly understood, from an unlikely source: a collection of aphorisms by a seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit and philosopher.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracián (1601–1658) wrote The Art of Worldly Wisdom as a guide to succeeding in a world where power and desire for power are key motivations. His final bit of advice is “Be a saint,” but Gracián knows that others are not saintly, and thus navigating the corridors of power requires wisdom of the world.

When we are trying to become leaders, we often aim to be more than we are—that is, we pretend to more strength and knowledge and wisdom than we actually possess. Fake it ’til you make it, as the saying goes. Think again of those politicians who strive to display command of—and offer a solution for—every issue under the sun.

Gracián recommends the opposite approach. Never, he counsels, let the full extent of your abilities be known; always be more than you appear to be; and keep some of your advice and strength in reserve, hidden from all, but available at a moment’s notice.

Through such advice, Gracián displays keen insight into the human psyche. He reminds us that we ought to “avoid outshining superiors.” No one, after all, wishes to lose, and “all victories breed hate,” especially victories over those with authority. Any “victory” over a superior is sure to be a Pyrrhic one. Those in power, Gracián reminds us, will “allow someone to help them but not to surpass them.”

This is why he advises that, when it comes to helping those in power, do not lead or give opinions in a way that commands. Rather, he says, “make any advice given to them appear like a recollection of something they have only forgotten rather than as a guide to something they cannot find.” Or, he continues, “make people depend on you,” but trust more in their dependence than in their gratitude, for people soon forget to be thankful. In other words, make yourself indispensable.

The Power to Influence

Struggling to attain power, we lay waste our real power, losing the ability to master ourselves in attempting to master others. As Gracián advises, “First be master over yourself if you would be master over others.”

If we allow others to outshine us in the visible (but passing) glory of public renown, we can achieve great influence as they consult us for our opinion and in the end do what we propose. For most of them, the glory fades, the flower withers, with all strength spent. But the person of influence, the one who has kept strength in reserve, has a quieter, longer, and more lasting capacity to effect change, to act and to shape affairs.

Gracián says, “Put oneself at the center of things.” But one needn’t be seen as the center to be there. Seek influence, not always leadership. You’ll be better prepared to succeed and in the long run can achieve far more than if you had sought mere power.


R. J. Snell is director of the Center on Ethics and the University at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and senior fellow of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His books include Authentic Cosmopolitanism (with Steve Cone)The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode, and Acedia and Its Discontents.


Complement with R. J. Snell on the importance of routine to success and why great leaders are steeped in the liberal arts, Peter Thiel on why competition is for losers, and Jane Clark Scharl on the "wrong side of history" myth.

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