Everybody Has a Story
Making a habit of asking people questions about themselves sounds simple, but our brains aren’t wired that way. In a study conducted at Harvard University’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, researchers used fMRI machines to scan participants as they discussed their own opinions and personality traits, followed by their observations of others. Sure enough, the “reward” areas of the brain—which are typically associated with pleasurable activities—lit up when the participants talked about themselves. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirmed that “most people spend the majority of their conversations sharing their own views rather than focusing on the other person.”
Another set of Harvard University studies scrutinized conversations during in-person speed dates. The researchers asked some of the participants to ask as many questions as possible, while others were instructed to ask as few as possible. Sure enough, the study concluded, “People were more willing to go on a second date with partners who asked more questions.”
To put it another way, when you listen and ask follow-up questions, you are telegraphing to others that you are interested in them. That kind of curiosity is the bedrock of influence, and it’s also how lifelong relationships are formed.
Make Kindness Normal
A 2010 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proved that generosity is highly contagious. The researchers studied people as they played a board game that rewarded acts of greed. The nastier you were, the better you did. However, when a single player decided to be generous instead of self-serving, the dynamics of the game broke down. Instead of acting out of greed, the other players responded with similar acts of generosity. That one act created a ripple of kindness that continued to grow, even though the players were acting against their self-interest.
What are the ways you can make kindness normal in your life? Here’s a good place to start: Think of the people you instinctively look away from. The people whose circumstances make you uncomfortable. Be genuinely interested in their stories, then go one step further and be interested in how you can help. It may or may not change their lives, but it certainly will change yours.
Own Your Words
The thing about owning your words is that you don’t have to go overboard. “Just keep your promises: Going above and beyond does not pay off,” concluded a study by the University of California, San Diego. In a series of experiments exploring promise breaking, promise keeping, and promise exceeding, the researchers found that while people reacted very negatively when a promise was broken, the effect of greatly exceeding a promise was almost nothing. For example, if you are sending flowers to Mom on Mother’s Day, you’re better off with a simple bunch of roses that arrives on time than an over-the-top bouquet that arrives late. “When you keep a promise, not only have you done something nice for someone, but you’ve also fulfilled a social contract and shown that you’re a reliable and trustworthy person,” the researchers explained. “Invest efforts into keeping promises, not in exceeding them.”
Start an Influence Streak
If you’ve ever gone through a tough period, you know how isolating it can feel, as if you’re in a dark cave and can’t see the way out. Except, every time someone shows up for you, a small light comes on and you can see a little better. If they show up again and again, the cave gets brighter and less scary. Before long, the path out is fully illuminated. Showing up for someone in this way—turning on one little light at a time—requires a streak of one small act after another. Most important, like any streak, it means being a hundred percent consistent. If you decide to show up for someone going through a tough time, pick an interval, whether it’s once per day or once per week, and stick to it. Add it to your calendar if you need to.
What’s your streak? Who are the people you reliably show up for again and again? When you invest in the lives of others by showing up—every time, no matter what—your legacy will become every bit as important.
It Cuts Both Ways
Without positive intent, truly investing in the lives of others is impossible. Intent is about asking why. Why are you choosing to lead others? Is it for recognition? For praise? For approval? For money? Or is it because you truly want to serve others and see them succeed? Put another way, while the first two i’s of influence are about earning your influence, intent is about maintaining that influence for the long term.
Everyone knows Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest head coaches in NFL history. He coached the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, leading the team to five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. The man’s name is so synonymous with winning that the Super Bowl trophy is named after him. Except here’s something you probably don’t know about Coach Lombardi: He never groomed a successor. When he died suddenly in 1970, there was no Packers coach prepared to step in and take the reins. As a result, the Packers spent years mired in mediocrity. In fact, not a single disciple of “the Pope”—as everyone called Lombardi—went on to win a championship. Not one!
Now, you might also have heard of Bill Walsh, the longtime coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He won 102 games overall, including three Super Bowls, but that’s nothing compared with Don Shula’s 347 wins or Bill Belichick’s six Super Bowl victories (and counting). Walsh is ranked just forty-fifth all time in wins, yet many consider him the greatest coach of all time—even better than “the Pope” himself. That’s because of Walsh’s legacy. If you look at his “coaching tree”—all the past and current head coaches who can be traced back to him—Walsh has no equal. Unlike Lombardi, Walsh poured his energy into his assistants so that they might one day go on to coach their own winning teams. As he wrote in his autobiography, “The ability to help the people around me self-actualize their goals underlines the single aspect of my abilities and the label that I value most—teacher.” So far, Walsh’s legacy includes dozens of head coaches, many of whom have gone on to win championships of their own. Close to half of all Super Bowl teams since 1981 have been coached by either Walsh or a member of his tree. Walsh may be ranked only forty-fifth in wins, but he’s number one where it counts most.
The very best influencers think like Bill Walsh and Joe Krenn. They follow the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said, “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” These leaders plant seeds and cultivate sprawling influence trees. They may go on to great accomplishments themselves, but they measure their success by how well they develop future leaders. And their legacy never stops growing.