I have spoken on leadership at all sorts of places, from local business organizations to General Electric to Harvard Business School. I have spoken to sales teams and management teams, from mid-management to upper-management, independent business owners to life-long corporate employees. Yet there is one common element, present in every group I've seen: when I ask for examples of leaders, the participants always name the same people from the same classification.

Inevitably, they name famous people. George Bush, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are typical. Rarely does anyone name someone they know personally. This reveals a typical misunderstanding of what true leadership is--one that may be affecting you as well.

We tend to equate leadership with things such as leading countries or armies; in actuality, leadership is much more simple than that.

My definition of leadership is: "Leadership is the ability to influence people to change their thoughts, beliefs, words and actions." In its basic definition, leadership is simply influence--and that opens up a whole new world for the average person.

When I ask those same audiences to name people of influence around them, they begin to name people they know. I ask them if they themselves have influence in the lives of anyone. Yes, they are leaders themselves! They may not lead countries or massive social movements, but they see that they are leaders!

I believe leadership is almost universal. We all lead others and we can all increase the quality and scope of our leadership. The secret is to improve our ability to influence others. As you look at your current level of influence, study what makes people strong influencers, and take action that will improve your ability to influence, you'll see your business become larger, more effective, and more profitable!

If the key to improving your leadership is to improve your ability to influence, then what are the basics of influence? There are hundreds of subtle ways in which you may influence others, but I have found there are six keys that provide the foundation for your ability to influence.


1. Relationships

It is always about the relationship. I once asked a man who buys $6 million a year of computer equipment why he chose one company's routers and switches over the others. Was it the price, warranty, speed? His answer: "We like their sales guy better." If you want to influence others, develop a relationship with them.


2. Integrity

Integrity is the cornerstone of networking. If they don't trust you, they won't trust your product--and where there is no trust, there is no business. Always tell the truth. Do not exaggerate; "under-promise and over-deliver" should be your motto. They need to know that what you say will happen, will always happen. Be fair. Work to establish and maintain trust. That's bedrock.


3. Skills

If others look at you and see that you lack skills, they think, "I don't know if this guy can do the job." Then they back off. Work on your skills. Develop great selling techniques. Increase your ability to communicate effectively. Get good. As you do, others will see you as a person of influence and will follow your lead.


4. Success

Imagine two people trying to sell you something. One is successful, dresses nicely and gives off an air of confidence. The other is just starting out, has no success and comes across as timid. To which person would you listen? Exactly! First and foremost, succeed in what you do now--so you can parlay that into future success. Dress the part and speak well. You want people to think, "This person is successful. When he or she speaks, I need to listen!"


5. Service

The leadership business is ultimately a service business: if you want to lead people you need to serve them. I first learned this lesson at age 11 while working for the Supersonics Basketball team. After working there about eight weeks, I broke my arms in an accident. They told me I could keep my job if I could do my job. One problem: I couldn't carry the huge jugs of water to the court from the locker room. So, for six weeks of games, future Hall-of-Famer and current Clippers coach, Dennis Johnson, who then played for the Sonics, carried those jugs for me. Guess which player got preferential treatment from me the next few years? Leader served follower--and follower responded. Are you a leader who is willing to carry your follower's water? If you are, you will have great influence!


6. Smarts

People want to see your smarts. You don't want people thinking, "She just doesn't know what she is talking about." Now, I am not suggesting that you fake it. Don't try to lead beyond your level of expertise--but you can constantly increase your level of expertise! Learn about your products and your business. Know your industry inside and out. Round out your knowledge of the disciplines of business. Know your stuff!


Put them together: Relationships, Integrity, Skills, Success, Service and Smarts--
work hard on developing yourself in these six areas, and you'll find your ability to influence growing, your leadership capacity getting bigger, and your network and business becoming everything that you want it to be!


CHRIS WIDENER is the President of Made for Success (www.MadeForSuccess.com), a company devoted to helping people turn their potential into performance, succeed in every area of their lives, and achieve their dreams.