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Leadership Through Persuasion

Picture this: You’re in charge of an organization. The organization runs smoothly, without you having to shout orders or look over people’s shoulders. People do what you ask them to do without complaint. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? In this little scenario, you show yourself to be a true leader, not just a boss. How can you achieve this leadership bliss? The path is through persuasion.

Persuasion is a communication process that causes a change in another’s behavior, attitude or belief. I believe that the ability to persuade is the key leadership skill. Contrasting two types of power, coercive and persuasive, helps explain the importance of persuasion to leadership. Coercive power depends primarily on either the authority that goes along with one’s position or control of resources and is based on reward and punishment. It exists only so long as you hold that position or control those resources. Persuasive power, in contrast, depends on your abilities rather than your position. Persuasive power endures the loss of position or resource control. It depends only on your skill.

Persuasion is not the same as manipulation. Think of manipulation as persuasion’s evil cousin. Both involve getting others to do or believe something, but they differ in two important ways. Manipulation typically relies on deception, and has little regard for impacts on others. Persuasion, in contrast, does not depend on deception and, at its best, gives due consideration to the other person.

Persuasion has been on the minds of leaders for centuries. Rhetoric, a topic of much interest to the ancient philosophers, is essentially the art of persuasion. In fact, Aristotle’s view of rhetoric serves as a solid foundation for understanding how to craft persuasive messages. Before we get to that, however, it is important to understand that persuasion is a process, not an event. The call to action or the changing of minds may occur at a particular point in time, but the groundwork is laid before the change.

The foundations of persuasion lay at the feet of Aristotle, who thought that persuasive arguments depend on three types of appeals, which he called ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos concerns the speaker’s credibility. Think of ethos as a lubricant for persuasion. If your ethos is low, persuasion is much harder. Establishing ethos happens long before a specific persuasive communication. At its core, ethos is about your audience’s perceptions of your trustworthiness, and trust is not built overnight. Logos refers to appeals to logic. Is your argument based on facts and evidence? Does it make sense? Logos is all Spock, logic and cold facts. Pathos appeals to our inner Dr. McCoy. Appeals to pathos tap your followers’ emotions. Pathos helps your followers feel your joy, your pain, your hopes. This emotional connection further lubricates the wheels of persuasion. The most persuasive arguments come from leaders who have high ethos, and appeal to both logic and emotion.

All three of these require listening to, understanding and empathizing with your followers. Listening and understanding builds trust, which is the foundation of ethos. Listening and understanding also helps you build arguments based on facts and logic that your followers find compelling. Your empathy towards your followers allows you to view emotional appeals through their eyes. Leaders who don’t listen to and understand their followers have a hard time persuading. They must rely on coercive power rather than leadership.

There’s much more to persuasion than I can fit into this column. So, I’ll recommend two books, Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” and Heinrichs’ “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson can Teach us About the Art of Persuasion.” The first is grounded in psychology, while the second has its roots in philosophy. Both are easy to read and quite useful. Heinrichs’ book is also very entertaining. (How can you not like a book that mentions Aristotle and Homer Simpson in the title?) FBN


This closes our series on the listen-understand-persuade model of leadership. Next month, we’ll talk about a trust-based view of leadership.


The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 2,700 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/.


By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.


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