Live Blog - Influence > Authority and Other Principles of Leadership

This is a bit of a different approach to doing my Live Blog. Normally I post these to my blog (TESTHEAD,, shameless plug :wink: ), instead, this go around I’m posting these on The Club. This is a new experience so here’s hoping this goes somewhat smoothly.


I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Elisabeth Hendrickson speak many times over the past decade and thus I was excited to see that Elisabeth was going to be the first speaker. For those not familiar with Elisabeth, she is a VP in Engineering with Pivotal/Cloud Foundry. I’m probably getting the title wrong and Elisabeth is saying that is perfectly OK. Titles don’t really matter, what matters is the fact that people lead and do so meaningfully.

The title of the talk is “Influence is greater than Authority” (just to make sure that people knew that the ‘>’ is intentional :wink: ). Often we get those two things confused. Authority is the ability to show that you have the power to do something, sometimes by fiat, sometimes by reputation, but it is not and should not be confused with leadership. Leadership often happens regardless of your title. In many cases, the de-facto leader of the team may not have an administrative title at all. I’m intimately familiar with this in the sense that I have often been a Lone Tester or part of really small teams, at least since 2001. Before that, I worked with Cisco Systems and it was a massive company with a lot of people and a structured hierarchy over time. I’ve never been a manager on paper, but I’ve been a manager and a leader in real life. In truth, that’s where it matters the most.

Many people struggle with the idea to lead without some sense of authority. The easiest way to break out of this most of thinking is to simply volunteer. If you are holding a meeting and you want to help make sure that people are heard, volunteer to facilitate the meeting or take notes, etc. This is a subtle ninja move. By stepping in to facilitate, you do a couple of things. First, you get to help make sure the key details are captured. Second, and I would argue more important, is it gives you a platform to reach out to others to encourage them to speak up and get their thoughts on the record. This subtle shift allows you to encourage other people to speak up and get engaged. In short, how do you foster inclusion? Volunteer and then include. I promise it works. It’s cool to see Elisabeth shares a similar opinion.

One of the things that may keep people from stepping forward is the fear of feedback. Get criticized enough and it’s easy to keep quiet and keep your head down. If you are aware of this and perhaps have felt that fear in your own life, you can help change that dynamic. Feedback is both positive and negative. It is possible to give feedback in a constructive way that doesn’t tear down the person. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer constructive feedback that may point out a negative but you can do it in a way that allows you to be kind rather than trying to be “nice”. Nice is overrated. Kind is vital and to borrow from Nick Lowe, sometimes you do have to be “cruel to be kind”.

If there is bad behavior that has to be addressed, we owe it to our colleagues to address it. Being frank doesn’t mean “be a jerk”. It means address situations and try to help address the problems by looking at the symptoms. At times, we get a little too caught up with the symptoms and we don’t actually address the underlying problem. The way we speak to these situations will be essential to successful interactions. Elisabeth has a number of examples for ways to address these hard conversations, but perhaps it can be summed up with Steven Covey’s long-standing advice of “Seek first to understand, then be understood”. By giving the time to understand where people actually are and what they are dealing with, we give them the chance to actually speak their mind and tell them why they feel/act/behave a certain way. By giving them that chance to speak, we help lay the groundwork for them being receptive to new ideas and feedback.

I have to include this on the blog because this is a wonderful point. Fear is a lousy compass. We often focus on the expedient. It’s not really surprising. Squeaky wheels get greased. They who yell the loudest often get pacified. We’ll deal with our problems later after we get through this crisis. Problem is, there is always another crisis and there’s no perfect situation where all the stars align. Hence it is easy for us to manage by fear and because of that lead by fear. It may be short-term effective but it will be long-term catastrophic. I can live with a little fear in a short window because it is unavoidable. I am far less willing to live with it if it becomes a day to day occurrence.

Elisabeth shared a story from Jon Stegner about how he was able to influence an issue with a purchasing system that was a mess. How can he help make the case? The company had a large supply of work glove, offered by a tremendous number of suppliers. He gathered a pair of each glove, labeled them with supplier and cost and then put a huge pile of gloves on the executive table. By showing them the waste and the inefficiency in the current system, he was able to make a change happen, even though he wasn’t the one with the authority to make that change happen.

Yay! Elisabeth is talking Yak Shaving! Seriously, Elisabeth is in my mind the Patron Saint of the problem of Yak Shaving. For those not familiar with what Yak Shaving is, here’s a cute example (not sure if the video will appear here, but look at to see it in action). It means you try to solve one problem but find yourself going down a rabbit hole to fix other things that were discovered in the process of fixing the first thing.

One of the areas that we have some control over (though again, we may need to be a little ninja about it) is that we can shift long standing boundaries and modify working agreements that we might take for granted. One example I remember was trying to convince my developers of the benefit of Pilot-Navigator testing, where we developed and tested simultaneously. Some were willing, others were more skeptical but I kept asking for opportunities to pair and see what they were working on. Over time, as they saw that I could keep up with the conversations, see what they were planning to do and at the end of the conversation have helped them see a number of new avenues (and more than a few issues) they started to see that this approach could work and they became more receptive to it. That’s an example of how to shift boundaries without having to radically challenge people.