At the intersection of food, influence, and leadership

Still new to the art of deciding when to do what others ask, children endearingly learn their usual way: they play games.

Simon says touch your toes. Simon says do a jumping jack. Look at the sky. [Laughter erupts as the pig-tailed girl eagerly looks up, then dissolves in giggles, realizing she goofed.]

For many of us, it was a rude awakening to become the boss. And we were not giggling. We had imagined our new title would make us a grown-up version of Simon. So we started issuing requests. And learned fast that true “power” – the ability to get things done through others — doesn’t come on a silver platter along with the new business cards and office nameplates.

The leader as hostage

As Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill puts it in her wonderful article, Becoming the Boss:

New managers soon learn … that when direct reports are told to do something, they don’t necessarily respond. In fact, the more talented the subordinate, the less likely she is to simply follow orders. (Some new managers, when pressed, admit that they didn’t always listen to their bosses either.) After a few painful experiences, new managers come to the unsettling realization that the source of their power is, according to one, “everything but” formal authority.

Or as one disillusioned manager put it in Hill’s article: “Becoming a manager is not about becoming a boss. It’s about becoming a hostage.

Today’s need for complex corporate collaboration is rough on those comfortable with old-style command-and-control leadership. Colleagues juggle requests not just from their boss, but from other departments, leaders, suppliers, prospects, and clients. And they frequently have great discretion in how they handle those requests. They can tackle a task today — or next Tuesday. They can dive into an assignment with great creative gusto, or just cross the “t’s” and dot the “i’s” in a perfunctory way.

Factors increasing that other “IQ” (influencing quotient)

Odds are highest that people will do what a leader requests if she meets one or more the world’s most obvious power criteria: if she’s their boss; if she has strong credentials; if they know her personally; and/or if she can inflict consequences for non-compliance.

But there are far less blatant characteristics at work when it comes to weaving influence. If we scrutinize leaders who meet none of the above power criteria, yet who manage to change how we behave today, we stand to unearth powerful lessons on “moving” others in the directions we’d like.

Take one of my favorite behavior-changers: Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma plus three other New York Times bestsellers. In 2010 he was the only food/ nutrition leader named to the magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. But his top “influence” credential is more personal: he has changed what many of us put on our forks each day.

Yet Pollan is not our boss. By his own admission, his formal credentials are sketchy (he’s got no nutrition degrees or research experience). We don’t know him personally, and if we don’t follow the food tenets in his books, there are no negative consequences.

So why is Pollan’s influence in the food world so strong?

In How Michael Pollan Actually Gets us to Listen to Him, Christine Champagne lays out five reasons people follow Pollan’s advice. Three of them offer leadership lessons to those of us who scramble hard on a daily basis to enlist others to do our bidding.

#1: SIMPLICITY: In a world of shifting, often contradictory nutritional advice, Pollan is a breath of fresh uncomplicated air. “Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.” Or “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Think Ronald Reagan and “small government.” Or Steve Jobs and “great product design.”

#2: HUMILITY: Pollan is clear that he’s out to learn, get his hands dirty, and succeed alongside us, not to lecture us or pose as the person with all the answers. To learn firsthand where our meat comes from, Pollan famously bought a 6-month old black steer in January 2002, then followed steer #534’s life all the way to the slaughterhouse in June. As he puts it: “I don’t think we like the voice of the omniscient… I think we like much better…somebody who is on a quest, and we want to know how it turns out.” Leaders who highlight and celebrate how they and their teams are constantly learning create a great result: more learning.

#3: DIRECT ENGAGEMENT: Like many authors, Pollen admits to loving the solitude of writing. Yet like other successful leaders he pushes himself out the door (on a real and virtual basis) so others can get to know him wherever they are – via Tv, magazines, at talks in lecture halls, on Twitter or Facebook, or on the street … basically anywhere outside the book-writing ivory tower.

Can these factors work for me?

Can these 3 factors — which amplify Michael Pollan’s influence — make a difference for you and other leaders?

Let’s look at another highly influential voice in today’s world of food & drink: that of Jim Koch, brewer of Sam Adams beer. Jim founded Boston Beer with his secretary in 1984; the company is now worth over $2 billion.

Jim provides a living, breathing example of how leadership gains steam (or should we say, a rich head of foam?) when the three influencing factors described above are present. In a recent INC Video interview, simplicity, humility, and direct engagement are evident – in spades – in Jim’s responses.

Simplicity: “We have a very simple rule about hiring that I think has enabled us to maintain a world-class group of people at Boston Beer Company. We never hire somebody unless they raise the average. If the answer is no, we’re not improving the company.”

Humility: “I never sold anything in my life until I had to put cold beer in my briefcase 31 years ago and go cold call on bars in Boston. I was scared to death. I didn’t want to get out of bed the first day.”

Direct engagement: “On a new employee’s first day, I spend two hours with them first thing in the morning talking about the company’s mission, cultures, and values. Then at the end of the day, I’ll spend another three hours with them tasting and discussing 30 different Samuel Adams beers. After about 20 beers, people feel really comfortable asking me any question they want.”

Yes, one way to a man (or woman’s) heart is still through his or her stomach, as evidenced by the number of Dunkin Donut boxes that find their way daily into corporate conference rooms.

But when it comes to influence, simplicity, humility, and engagement beat donuts – and even beer – hands down. (Methinks Jim Koch credits the wrong substances for building loyalty and trust in him, including the courage to ask the Chairman crazy questions on one’s first day of work. )

So be sure you’re dishing up generous servings of simplicity, humility, and direct engagement if you’d like to get more done through others.

And who doesn’t?