The Nine Spheres of Influence Essential to Great Leadership

Let’s be clear. Influence is not taught in the universities. Neither is the PRACTICE of leadership. Leadership is influence. It’s as simple and a complex as that.

Written by Murray Johannsen. Feel free to connect via LinkedIn or directly from this website

Using authority (which many managers do) is like saying you have a powerful engine running on just one of eight cylinders. You waste two-thirds of your potential to get results. So rather than relying on authority, you want to rely on influence.

Some, like positive reinforcement, are easy to learn; others, like charisma, require a great deal of skill, time, and effort. 

The Nine Spheres of Social Influence

“When I make a mistake, I am an idiot. . . When my boss makes a mistake, he’s only human.” — Unknown.

Legacee's Nine Spheres Model: The Elements of Social Influence
Legacee’s Nine Spheres of Social Influence Model. Copyright © 2011 By Murray Johannsen. This model lists one source of positional influence (authority) and eight others associated with the leader’s characteristics.
  • Coaching,
  • Vision,
  • Relationship
  • Charisma
  • Authority
  • Expertise
  • Punishment
  • + Reinforcement
  • Persuasion

Influence is an Important Part of Transformational Leadership

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” — Kenneth Blanchard

Learning How To Influence

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The Nine Spheres of Influence — Defined

In politics, a sphere of influence is defined as the state’s cultural, economic, military, or political power over another. Similarly, leaders have a sphere of control to sway the people around them.

1. Authority

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — Lord Acton, Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887 

Auhthority as represented by the Justices of the US Supreme Course
The members of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. Notice the symbols of authority in the picture. You might say judges rely almost exclusively on positional power.

Definition of Authority

It is a legitimate right to influence people based on one’s position inside an organization or nation. However, it implies a power imbalance — one is dominant, and another is submissive. Therefore, it is usually a vertical relationship, a top-down influence mechanism associated with obedience, conformity, and compliance.

Context For Use

It works best in large bureaucratic organizations and is an essential mechanism of political leadership. Typically, there is also a status difference. We do what a police officer says because the officer represents authority.

Image by: Diego Delso: Virgin Mary church, Wrocław, Poland. Within the structure of the church, there is authority.

How to Develop

“Don’t forget, always follow the chain of command.” — Doom (Annihilation)

2. Influence By Coaching

“Coaches have to watch for what they don’t want to see and listen to what they don’t want to hear.” — John Madden.

Painting by: William Blake (1757-1827), Age Teaching Youth

Definition of Coaching

It is not just teaching, not pontificating in front of the classroom. It rarely uses tests, and students are not required to read a textbook. For authentic coaching is about skill-building, not lectures on a whiteboard. — Murray Johannsen

Context For Use

I like to ask what people take pride in. Contrary to what you see on the resumes, work activities don’t put a smile on the face. What brings out the smile is the leader who mentored, taught, and coached them to be better human beings.

Executive Coaching (and, by extension, mentoring and teaching) influences people by providing new knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, neither are most executives.

Traditionally, managers and supervisors have never assumed the mantel of leadership required to function as a coach—telling someone what to do is not the same as showing someone how to do it. Unfortunately, neither do the vast majority of CEOs.

Skills to Develop

One must develop sharp observation and intervention skills to exert social influence by coaching. Communication and motivation skills are essential. You might say a coach is a great leader.

One must be a subject matter expert. One needs deep expertise. You can’t fake it here, whether the test is on the soccer field or having lunch with an executive.

Most professors cannot coach. Neither can most managers or executives. Nor can consultants. Why? Coaching requires the skill of building skills.

The Forbes (2016) Coaches Council posted a great article titled “10 Coaching Skills Every Leader Should Master” on how to develop coaching influence skills.

3. The Sphere of Persuasion

I am reminded of the story of how God called Noah to build an ark so that he, his family, and all the earth species could survive the flood He would let loose in two weeks. Noah was shocked and said, “two weeks! God, do you know how long it takes to build an ark?” And God replied, “Noah, how good are you at swimming?”

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Definition of Persuasion

Simply, getting someone to agree to act in their best interest. But, of course, getting someone to work in your best interest leads to ethical problems.

“You can lead an organization through persuasion or formal edict. I have never found the arbitrary use of authority to control an organization either effective or, for that matter, personally interesting. If you cannot persuade your colleagues of the correctness of your decision, it is probably worthwhile to rethink your own.” — Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

This is an interesting statement since no one could figure out what he said when Greenspan spoke in public. This made him appear more brilliant than he was. The thought being, “Oh, he must be brilliant. I can’t understand him.”

Context For Use

Long an essential skill of great salespeople throughout history, persuasion becomes a bulwark for leadership when authority does not work. Technically, persuasion ends with someone saying, “I agree.” But the agreement doesn’t mean people will take action.

Unfortunately, persuasive influence requires a fair amount of sales savvy and a sophisticated understanding of attitude change and cognition.

4. Influence by Positive Reinforcement

“Reinforcements continue to be important, of course, long after an organism has learned how to do something, long after it has acquired behavior. They are necessary to maintain the behavior in strength.” — B. F. Skinner, Harvard University, Harvard Educational Review, 1954

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According to a theory of psychology known as operant conditioning, there are two types of reinforcement and two types of punishment to influence people. Some refer to it as more of a learning theory, while others think operant conditioning is a theory of motivation.

Its potential for influencing people lies in the fact that consequences work in both people and animals. Practically speaking, negative reinforcement presents ethical issues, so wise leaders focus on developing influence through positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood of DESIRED BEHAVIOR.

Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace (90+ Examples & Reward Ideas)

5. The Motivational Sphere of Punishment

“You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” — Al Capone (1899-1947), Chicago mobster.

Evelyn De Morgan  (1855–1919)  Hope in a Prison of Despair

Punishment has a very narrow definition in operant conditioning. In this case, the meaning will be expanded to include the threatened use of punishment. One could argue that the threatened use of punishment (escape-avoidance) can reduce undesired behavior just as much as psychological pain as its actual use.

To say one will have to use punishment to change undesired behavior says something about human nature. Nasty bosses and individuals who make Fortune magazines the most brutal boss list use this as a primary influence technique. Something best used when all other forms of leadership influence don’t work, its proper use is subject to legal statutes and ethical constraints to decrease UNDESIRED BEHAVIOR.

Punishment Humor. A seeing-eye dog was trying to get its master across the street, but the light was not working. So the dog attempted once, but oncoming traffic drove them back to the curb. So the dog tried a second time, but the horns from a group of taxis drove them back again. So they tried a third time, and this time they were successful despite the loud horns and the curses of drivers.
Once on the other side of the street, the dog’s master reached out for a biscuit to give to the dog. A person who had observed the whole thing went over the person and said, “You probably shouldn’t reward the dog for putting your life in danger by giving him a biscuit.” But the dog’s master replied, “Reward, heck. I am just trying to find which side is his head so I can kick his behind.”

6. Relationship Influence

“He who mistrusts most should be trusted least.” — Theognis of Megara, Greek poet. 

Your people won’t remember and don’t give a damn how much money you saved the company.” — Unknown.

Karl Reichert  (1836–1918): Animal friendship

Whether you realize it or not, your success in business and life will depend on your ability to establish critical relationships and influence and add value to your relationships. Building and maintaining trust is essential for leading. 

One of the most challenging aspects of a leader is their ability to repair damaged relationships. From experience, I’ve found that often leaders think that to gain the respect of their team that they have to be right all the time and that showing that they’re wrong makes them vulnerable and is a sign of weakness.

Relationship Humor. The doctor looked benignly at the woman who had come to him for an examination. “Mrs. Brown,” he said, “I have good news for you.” The woman said,’ I’m glad of that, doctor, but I’m Miss Brown.” Miss Brown,” said the doctor without changing expression, “I have bad news for you.”

See also: Leadership, Influence & Relationships

7. Influence Through Expertise

In 1929, days after the stock market crash, the Harvard Economic Society reassured its subscribers: “A severe depression is outside the range of probability.” In a survey in March 2001, 95% of American economists said there would not be a recession, even though one had already started.” — American’s Vulnerable Economy, The Economist, November 15, 2007

Mattheus van Helmont  (1623–after 1679 ): The Scribe’s Office

Experts are people whom we think have valuable information. Often they are people who know how to make the right decision or solve that intractable problem.

How to use expertise as a form of influence is somewhat of a paradox. Experts with little power and ignorant dolts seem to speak the gospel.

It helps to have the depth of knowledge to be perceived as an expert, which is an integral part of success. For example, people follow a doctor’s instructions because that person has expertise.

How to influence with expertise lies partly in the psychological theory known as attribution theory. But too often, we accept false beliefs and false arguments as truth.

Expertise Humor. The man told his doctor that he couldn’t do everything he used to do around the house. When the examination was complete, he said, “Now, Doc, I can take it. Tell me in plain English what is wrong with me.” “Well, in plain English,” the doctor replied, “you’re just lazy.” “Okay,” said the man. “Now, give me the medical term so I can tell my wife.”

8. Influence Through Vision

Dante Gabriel Rossetti  (1828–1882): The Day Dream

Few leaders know how to influence with a vision to motivate people and themselves. Those that do can accomplish great events. People with it seem to harness an inner strength that keeps pushing them forward on a path no matter how difficult.

The visionary leader also understands how to influence people through expectations. To use it, it’s helpful to get into the research by Rosenthal.

and to understand the Pygmalion Effect and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you have seen the My Fair Lady and the King’s Speech, you have a feel for the power of this influence. This is important for parents to understand if they want to encourage their children to succeed.

From a management standpoint, one wants to think strategically to sort through the options and decide on the destination. Also, vision is a tactical or step-by-step element associated with it. It is a poor plan that lacks a sound set of actions.

Two subtle skills are needed to have vision work: insight and foresight. They require knowing how to change mental processes — something most can’t do.

Setting positive and negative expectations exerts tremendous influence, but few leaders understand how to use them properly.

9. Charisma as a Sphere of Influence

“Charm is charisma in the lady.” — M. Johannsen

“Charisma was originally a religious term, meaning “of the spirit” or “inspired.” It’s about a sparkle in people that money can’t buy. It’s invisible energy with visible effects.” — Marianne Williamson.

François-André Vincent  (1746–1816): Alcibiade recevant Alcibades being taught by Socrates

What Is Charismatic Leadership? To be a great leader, charisma is an important technique to master. However, you might have heard that charisma cannot be developed. That is not true. Business mentor Simon Reynolds has written a short article presenting critical tips on how to be more charismatic. Do you want to learn how?

Charisma, like beauty, has an element of the undefinable — it’s something one must experience. Still, many have attempted to define it.

Suppose you are the alpha sitting behind the mahogany desk in a large bureaucracy (i.e., CEO running an MNC). In that case, you might not have to worry much about being charismatic. 


Leaders’ use of influence is like singing—if one only belts out notes, there’s no song. But If you have nine notes, the song sounds like real music.

Each of the nine methods of influencing can be turned into a skill. Just because you don’t have it today doesn’t mean you can’t develop it in the future.

On Site Resources

French, J.R.P., & Raven, B. (1959). ‘The bases of social power,’ in D. Cartwright (ed.) Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Written in 1959, French and Raven wrote The Basis For Social Power. This work is still commonly cited in management textbooks. However, they listed only five sources of influence

First Published on November 29, 2007 Last Update: June 18, 2023

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