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Knowledge vs Influence

A couple of months ago, as part of my work with the RAF Air Cadets, I was conducing some cadet promotion interviews. One of the things that really stuck out to me when doing this, is that many of the candidates were fantastic at telling me all of the things they knew, and the things that they had done, and they knew and had done a lot! But really what I wanted to evaluate is how they would perform as a leader, which led me to ask each of them the following question:

Which is more important in leadership - knowledge or influence?

Our intuition often guides us to believe that knowledge is the key to achieving success. The education system, certainly in the UK, is primarily focussed on the acquisition of knowledge over skills. Who, for example, ever got taught presentation skills, or active listening, at school?

Knowledge is Power, Influence is Change

Going back to the question I asked the cadets then, most of them took a moment to think, and then confidently replied "knowledge". So I framed the question differently:

Imagine the task is to build a bridge across a river (I'll leave it up to you to decided whether it's shark infested 🦈). Is the best person to lead the team the person who knows the most about building? Or the person who knows most about the river? Or perhaps the one who knows the most about physics? Perhaps, instead, it is the person who can create the best environment for those technical minds to thrive, be creative, and bring their different perspectives on the situation together into one single cohesive team working towards a single common objective?

When put like this, I think most would agree that the last option is likely to result in the best outcome for all. That is, influence is the more significant factor in selecting the best leader.

To be clear, I'm in no way suggesting that knowledge is not important. Success relies on a myriad of factors (luck being one), and whilst knowledge is certainly one of them, my point is that influence, and the skills that lead to it, are higher up the list. The true mark of a leader is not in what they know, but the change which they are able to effect.

Story Time

Anyone who knows me, knows I love a side-story; perhaps it's why I'm a side-quest-first kind of gamer. Anyway, before I make a side story out of a side story, here it is:

I have a two year old son called Arthur who, for some reason, has developed a strong passion, in the way that only a toddler could, for refusing to wear shoes. Instead, choosing only to wear wellington boots. To be honest, I'm here for it, so every morning I drop him off at nursery wearing whichever pair of wellies are his favourite that day - usually his light-up Thomas the Tank engine ones.

A couple of weeks ago we heard that his nursery were asking parents to send their children in wearing wellies if possible. It turns out that the whole class had decided that wellies are the footwear of choice and had been competing for the few pairs that the nursery had in stock.

Arthur had managed to get his entire peer group on board, and join in with his passion. As someone who is just learning how to speak, he can't have done this by passing on knowledge, instead it's purely through influence.

Arthur's array of wellies (and a stray pair of crocs)
Arthur's array of wellies (and a stray pair of crocs)


While knowledge helps us to understand the whole, it's really influence that empowers us to shape it. As the bridge building analogy shows, the definition of a leader lies not just in what they know, but in how they inspire and unite others towards a common goal. I'd love to know your thoughts on this, particularly if you disagree, get in touch and let me know! Have I influenced your perspective? 😛 #GoForIt