February 2013

Influential Leadership

by Kevin Pledge

Editors’ Note: As mentioned in the Editor’s Note at the beginning of Jerry Enoch’s article, “Aggressive Leadership,” the Entrepreneurial Section is calling for short articles on leadership—a relevant topic to entrepreneurs and business people that lends itself to analysis from diverse angles. If there is enough interest in the project, we plan to publish the articles as a collection at the end of the year. Kevin’s article focuses on influential leadership. If you want to share your ideas with us, please send articles and suggestions to Carlos Fuentes at carlos_fuentes@aya.yale.edu.

Over the last year a lot has been said about Steve Jobs’ autocratic style of leadership—he was a renowned perfectionist, insisting on doing things his way. This is why you do things a certain way on the Mac, while on the PC there are several ways to do the same action. Despite this renowned autocratic style, Jobs was clearly one of the most influential leaders of this century.

The ability to influence people is a critical leadership skill, especially for entrepreneurs running their own businesses. Any new venture requires gaining support and therefore influencing a wide range of supporters, probably more so in an entrepreneurial environment than in a traditional organization structure with clearly defined reporting lines, although there are organizations where one’s influence is not measured strictly by job titles. I suspect a key difference between intrapreneurs (a term I use for people that influence beyond their rank and drive large organizations forward) and entrepreneurs is the ability intrapreneurs have to push their ideas forward without upsetting people—there is nothing worse than working in a company where someone carries a grudge against you. Entrepreneurs can be more edgy, and if a few people don’t like the ideas of an entrepreneur, then they can move on. Can you imagine Steve Jobs working his way up through the ranks at HP? He needed to do his own thing because that was what his leadership style demanded.

So, why talk about influential leadership? It’s about skills (and how you can develop them). I hear people talking about developing leadership skills or being natural born leaders. I’m not sure either is entirely true. What is within your reach is to develop the skills that make you a good leader, the most important of which is the ability to influence others. Pat Williams, former SVP of Orlando Magic and author, spoke on leadership at a recent SOA meeting. He set out seven critical leadership skills. I would characterize the first three skills he described (vision, communication and people skills), as “the ability to influence others.” I recommend his book, Leadership Excellence, if you want a general read on the subject, although I believe that you can’t learn these skills by simply reading a book; you can only become more aware of them.

Influencing skills are developed from experience. You may be fortunate and have the opportunity to develop these skills at work, or you can look for this experience outside of your normal workplace through volunteering with the SOA (or any other organization). This is not a selfish plug to recruit volunteers; it is a simple fact. Think about it—volunteering with an organization outside of your regular work requires working with others through influence. It provides you with an opportunity to develop these skills outside of your corporate career path, an opportunity that may not be available within your company.

Kevin Pledge, FSA, FIA, is CEO and co-founder of Insight Decision Solutions in Markham, Ontario, Canada, and past chair of the Entrepreneurial Actuaries Section. He may be reached at kpledge@insightdecision.com.