To Whom Are You Among the Most Influential People in the World?

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In our line of work, we deal with lots of lists. Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Places to Work; their Most Admired List; Glassdoor’s Best Places to Launch a Career, and the like. We’ve even got a few lists of our own, including our latest list of “Contented Cow” companies, highlighted in our upcoming new book, Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk.

But perhaps the most perplexing (to me) list to come out lately is Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World. No harm to Time, but I think their definition of “influential” and mine differ. In my book, someone who’s influential is someone who has a substantial effect on the behavior and thinking of others, for good or ill. By that standard, the Time list largely misses the mark.

Topping the list is New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin.  Immensely talented and uber-famous, he has a great story, and by all accounts is a great and admirable guy. I like him a lot, and I think much of the world admires and respects him. But I question “worldwide influence.” I just don’t know that he’s substantially changed the world’s behavior or way of thinking.

I was surprised that, of the 100 people on the list, this news junkie and reasonably “world-aware” writer has never heard of 74 of them. Sure, there are some really good picks on the list. Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose swing vote has often determined the law of the land in the U.S.; world leaders Obama, Merkel, and Netanyahu; the mega-wealthy Alice Walton and Warren Buffet. But Kristen Wiig? Please. She makes me laugh on Saturday Night Live, and I think she’s really good at her job, so I respect and admire her. But influence? One of the most influential people in the world? I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

Maybe influence is easier to relate to at the personal level than on a worldwide scale. If that’s the case, I can think of four groups that are among the real “Most Influential People” in the world: Parents, Teachers, Mentors, and Bosses. The first two are so obvious that I won’t take up blogspace elaborating.

Lots of you are probably “mentors unaware”. Your mentee has never called you a mentor, but you’re a mentor nonetheless. He or she looks up to you, watches what you do, and emulates you to a degree. That’s influence. Others have entered into formal mentoring relationships at work, and still others have volunteered to serve as a mentor to a young person, perhaps through the school system or a community organization. THAT’s influence.

But think about it. If you’re somebody’s boss at work, their leader, manager, supervisor, whatever term you want to use, you have, like it or not, tremendous potential to exert influence over the people you lead, if for no other reason than the fact that they spend a huge proportion of their waking hours under your leadership. You can affect their behavior, their thinking, indeed the entire trajectory of their professional life. That’s a daunting responsibility by any measure, and I fear that too many bosses fail to recognize the influence they have over the people who call them “boss”.

If you’re somebody’s boss, stop and think, soon, about how you affect the behavior and thinking of those you lead. If you want to sleep well at night, make a conscious decision to be an influence for good on the people you lead.

You may not be much of a basketball player, or lead great industrial nations, but you could very well be the “Most Influential Person” in someone’s life. Make the best of it.

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