We’ve often heard that leadership is influence. John Maxwell, a leading author and leadership expert, has stated that “All leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.”  I mean no disrespect to Mr. Maxwell, but I believe that there is more to leadership than influence.

Influence [in-floo-uh ns]  noun

the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others
the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of another or others

to move or impel (a person) to some action

I love to look at the origin of words because it provides us with a more in-depth meaning and context for the words. Influence comes from Latin influens, present participle of influere “to flow into,” from in– “into, in, on, upon” + fluere “to flow”.

So, when I picture this in the context of leadership, I see a person who comes flows into another group. Many times this leadership may be well received and yet we’ve all been a part of leadership in our careers that hasn’t been well received. As the leader tried to flow into or influence the group, the group felt pulled in a direction that wasn’t natural or aligned with what they believed was right for the team. Influence in the mid-15th century came to mean “exercise of personal power by human beings.” In the 1580s it came to mean “exertion of unseen influence by persons.”

Now you can see where “under the influence” also comes from as we first hear of the “unseen” aspect of influence.

I believe that many folks who are new to leadership fall for this. They believe that they have to insert themselves and flow into the group or team. They believe that they must exercise their personal power and exert their influence (seen or unseen). This is where trouble begins.

As pressure is pushed against us from one side, we naturally push back from the other. We resist. This is a natural human practice and is part of the “balance” to which nature is predisposed.

The most effective leaders exhibit confluence before influence.

What is confluence?

Well, as someone who grew up in Pittsburgh PA which is located at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, I was pretty familiar with this word.

Confluence [kon-floo-uh ns] noun

a flowing together of two or more streams, rivers, or the like
a coming together of people or things;

The origins of confluence comes from Latin confluens, present participle of confluere “to flow together,” from com– “together” + fluere “to flow”.

I often give an visual example of confluence when I speak in front of a group. I ask for a volunteer who comes up to the front. I ask him or her to hold up their hand in front of them. I then take my hand and press it against theirs. I try to flow into or in-fluence their hand by pushing on it. Almost immediately, they push back and resist.

Then, I try something different. Rather than pushing “in”, I flow “with”. I take my hand and move it to the right, they inevitably move their hand with mine with relative ease. I move it back to the left and they follow. I move my hand up and together our hands flow upwards. I then bring my hand back down and our hands flow down. Then I move my hand toward them (the same thing that I tried to do initially) and our hands flow toward them with ease. I then pull my hand back toward my body and our hands stay together as they move in my direction and under my direction.

Some people may describe this as influence as well. I don’t see it that way. Call it semantics but in order to change the flow of a river, you must first flow with the river. You can try to influence (flow into) the river but that doesn’t mean that you can change it or lead it. Most of the water will just continue to flow the way it has always flowed.

When you flow WITH the river, you will be able to build trust and grow with the river. This is where you will experience the true power of the team. This is where you will be able to generate enough energy and excitement to change the course. It is by com– + fluere or flowing together that you will then be able to be an unseen compelling force of influence.

What if…

  • What if you saw yourself first flowing with your team before you saw yourself exerting your force over them?
  • What if you allowed others to first trust you?
  • What if you believed in your team and trusted them?
  • What if you became that person that others will willingly follow?

I believe that confluence should be turned into a verb. I believe that a leader must first confluence others and then influence them.

Steps to Confluential Leadership…

  1. Listen
  2. Connect
  3. Be real
  4. Be present
  5. Be collaborative
  6. See your team members as human beings not just human doings.
  7. See your teamwork as a flow of people, actions, and ideas


I’d love to hear what you think about this article. Please send me your thoughts and comments below.  THANKS!

Featured image provided by: The Point (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  AxsDeny 

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