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BK Magazine 25th Anniversary
There is ambiguity in the word persuasion. One of the dictionaries I consulted, in a series of definitions, gives three that do not imply coercion. A fourth implies coercion. And the fifth states flatly, “to bring a desired action or condition by force.”
I prefer to use the word persuasion for a process that does not allow either coercion or manipulation in any form. One is persuaded, I believe, upon arrival at a feeling of rightness about a belief or action through one’s own intuitive sense.
This process takes time! The one being persuaded must take that intuitive step alone, untrammeled by coercion or stratagems. Both leader and follower respect the autonomy and integrity of the other and each allows and encourages the other to find his or her own intuitive confirmation of the rightness of the belief or action.
If this relationship prevails whenever it is possible, then, when a quick action is required, one supported by the skimpiest of rationalizations, it will be accepted with the assurance that at some future time there will be the opportunity for intuitive mutuality to be re-established.
A leader who practices persuasion whenever possible sets a model that, in time, will encourage followers to deal with the leader by persuasion. Power is generated in this relationship because it admits of mutual criticism, spirited arguments can occur, and it does not depend on artful stratagems.
This poses a problem for conventional organization structures in which those “at the top” hold coercive power and, because of their superior informational sources, are in a good position to manipulate. Such persons should take note that those who are seen as holding coercive power, even though they use it sparingly, are somewhat dis- qualified to persuade. “Where is the hidden agenda?” is often the unasked question.
Since in our imperfect society it is difficult to conceive of a functioning organization in which there is not an ultimate locus of coercive power, two suggestions are made so that unqualified persuasive power can make its contribution:
I speak with some conviction on this second point because, near the end of my career, I was party to an unsuccessful effort to persuade the top command where I worked that a new goal was needed. The great dream on which the institution was built had lost its force and, as seems the plight of so many contemporary institutions, ours was in the mood of struggling to survive.
Those in command where I worked were honest, able, dedicated, and caring—like so many who head other institutions with which I am familiar. But they were not guided by a great dream, and not a dream that was shared by those who followed them. The idea that inspires and unifies was muted. Leaders were seen, too much, as self-symbols; they did not come through as servants of the dream. Consequently, there was not enough trust in the institution by any of its constituencies.
Great institutions are a fusion of great ideas and great people. Neither will suffice without the other.
This article is an adapted excerpt from The Power of Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf.
I'm a big fan of Robert K. Greenleaf, the modern father of Servant Leadership. Persuasion, especially for managers who could otherwise order their subordinates around or manipulate them, is much harder, but it is the more advanced form of leadership, and reaps many more benefits for all. And this applies to non-management positions as well. Master salesperson Rob Jolles writes about the power of persuasion in How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence Without Manipulation. I highly recommend it.