“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”
[Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]
We know from experience that formal leaders influence the behavior of those in their chain of command. CEOs, lead scientists, general managers, and so on. But there's a difference between power and status — some leaders may have status and no power, while others just the opposite.
Those who have power and no status may still exercise control over others, as history attests. Without the formal power, status can help us be heard. Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist at a time when physics wasn't held in high esteem in Italy. The 1938 Nobel Prize winner earned his leadership status through work.
His consistent displays of competence, his support of peer scientists across Europe, his sharp intelligence and passion for physics, and some sheer luck, catapulted him from fairly humble origins to the world's stage.
Fermi was versed in both theory and an experimental physics — publishing the results of his thinking, learning new languages to access and join the European scientific community, and supporting the discipline at home got him noticed.
He demonstrated time and time over how he was able to estimate the stages in a process, often getting so close to the actual results to inspire wonder in fellow physicists. If Fermi said something, it was golden. Because of this and his natural calm and measured temperament, colleagues called him The Pope. His story in The Pope of Physics by Gino Segre' and Bettina Hoerlin is a spellbinding tale. All the communities and research labs Fermi touched with his work flourished.
He was a patient teacher and an aggressive learner and his influence is still felt today. We earn status by proving our worth. Competence weighs very heavily in favor of influence.
Dr. Everett Rogers, a sociologist and statistician, started his work on understanding influence by trying to convince Iowa farmers to use “new and improved strains of corn.” In Influencer, Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler tell his story:
As Dr. Rogers talked with local farmers about the terrific new seeds he was recommending, he quickly learned that his education and connection to the university didn't impress them. He wasn't exactly one of them. Farmers dressed differently; their hands were rough from physical labor; they read different magazines and watched different TV programs. Other than speaking the English language, they scarcely had a thing in common with Rogers.
Rogers discovered that this difference would not work to his advantage. The reason was that he literally had not done what they had done — he hadn't plowed a field, or worn his snakes boots as we used to say in the ag days.
The idea Rogers proposed fell on deaf ears because it was him to propose it. Maybe if he could get another farmer to talk about the benefits of the new strain of corn... they would listen. So he set out to find a farmer he could convince to try it. He found his man. He didn't look much like the other farmers, his attire, brand of car, and attitude were different. He was interested in innovation.
But when this fellow tried the new strains of corn and did very well with it, his neighbors did not get motivated to try it. It turned out that the farmers disliked the fellow who was unlike them for similar reasons they didn't like Rogers.
The incident motivated Rogers to refocus his career on understanding what happens to innovations as they move through social systems.
He wanted to know why some ideas are adopted and others aren't. He also wanted to uncover why certain individuals are far more influential in encouraging people to embrace an innovation than others.
Rogers was shocked to discover that the merit of an idea did not predict its adoption rate. What predicted whether an innovation was widely accepted or not was whether a specific group of people embraced it.
His insight was we need to stay away from the people others call “innovators.” Instead, we should look to identify the early adopters, those people regard as “opinion leaders.” They're about 13.5% of the population, smarter than average, and open to new ideas:
But they are different from innovators in one critical aspect: they are socially connected and respected. And here's the real influence key. The rest of the population — over 85% — will not adopt new practices until opinion leaders do.
To find opinion leaders if we're Enrico Fermi, we need to identify the associations, publications, and research groups other scientists look to as credible sources. When Fermi decided to publish also in German, he attracted the attention of renown physics opinion leaders in Germany and Netherlands.
Building trust with opinion leaders in any community is a critical stepping stone in getting people to adopt an idea. The authors of Influencer suggest a simple method to identify these people in organizations — asking people to list the employees who they believe are the most respected and connected. Those who make multiple lists are the opinion leaders.
Words are also very powerful. When we say “leaders,” we typically mean a person who leads. It's not a title, and not one we should give lightly. We want to use a more appropriate word to talk about someone who doesn't guide or conduct with commanding authority earned through competence. Maybe that term is simply “person with power,” leaving the results for history to judge.
Adoption of ideas is voluntary, takes root, and spreads through trusted relationships.