Influence versus Popularity: What drives you as a leader?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” Matthew 16:24-27 (NRSV)

In ministry leadership at times you must make a clear choice. Will I be influential or will I be popular? When both are possible–which is a rare occasion of fortune–you have a windfall of capital to leverage. However, popularity and the power that comes from it is acquired by the minutia of the direction of the wind, and is as fickle as the latest fad. Influence, on the other hand, is based on time and the reputation that results. To maintain popularity requires a crisis management at every threat. To maintain influence simply means you keep a steady hand.

Now, perks are worth something. And, perks come from being in popularity today. Influence is playing the long game. You play to win! Those who are concerned with keeping their image and status are simply playing not to lose. The odds, given time, are not in their favor. So, why do we mimic the behaviors of the cool kids? The bad guy gets the girl, right? But, does he stay married to her and does he take care of her. In the moment it seems fuzzy, but the long view tells the whole story.

Here are four common pitfalls when choosing popularity over influence:

Opposition is seen as a crisis, not the normal course of leadership. When a complaint about the volume of music is put forward, it can either be expected and dealt with calmly, or it can become an issue that causes confusion–leaders running around like ants without a queen. Playing “not to lose” means panic and the fear of loss. Leveraging influence means this issue is small and time and character will vet the deeper issues that need to be dealt with.

Blame shifting is practiced over problem solving. If things are not going so well, an enemy to rally against is convenient. Instead of seeing mistakes and failures on a team as opportunities to grow and discover, they are unacceptable because they make the leader simply look bad. Looking bad is a problem when you live by the whims of the people. The “we” is better than the the “us and them” when its your very own team. Influence means you set a culture of problem solving, rather than cause your team to duck and cover.

The mole hill becomes Mt. Everest. Simply, the smallest things will trip you up. Or, in reality they can because popularity is about the shallow, fickle, and lowest-common-denominator kind of leadership. To be known for the little things is appropriate in the right context. A small math error can ruin a spreadsheet. However, to be “penny smart and pound foolish” is to rule without the larger view. From the top of a mountain, mole hills do not exist. It is all about perspective.

Perfectionism rules over excellence. Perfectionism means that no matter how good you are, how far you’ve come, the score card will be revised so that you never meet expectations. Excellence is about doing the best with what you have, and doing it in a way that your values remain intact. Often, this is self-defeating and can create a culture around the leader of negativity and depression. It is not energizing to fight for the unattainable and be unappreciated in the process. This internal struggle of the leader becomes an external cultural toxicity for the team.

The goal in this conversation is to take inventory of the things that drive us. Are we driven to win the short game of popularity at the cost of our longterm influence? Or, are we driven to live out our values so strongly that these identify us over time? This is not a cut and dry reality. Popularity is not a bad thing–being driven by it is. What drives you?

Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

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