The Power of Influence: 
The Model of  the Trusted Advisor
by Irving H. Buchen

  “Don’t ask for power. Seek influence. It lasts longer. “
E. M. Forster: Howard’s End

Minimally, there are three kinds of power: the power to reward, the power to coerce, and the power to order. These are the recurrent currency of the military and of many organizations that follow chain of command. The problem especially with bribery and fear is that they cannot be internalized. They require constant monitoring and reinforcement The drill sergeant remains  permanently in attendance. Even the third is really a subtler version of the first two. Obedience or disobedience usually is followed by some form of reward and /or punishment.

Influence is generally given short shrift. Often it is subsumed or absorbed into power. Here, in fact, is a standard text book definition: “Power is the force you use to make things happen in an intended way. Whereas influence is what you have when you exercise power, and is expressed  by others' behavioral response to your exercise of  power.” (Schemerhorn, Organizational Behavior, 2000) . In other words, power is cause, influence is effect. But the issue has become more complex because of  two way corporate feedback . The dominant form of downward communication has increasingly been supplemented by upward communication. Thus, it is now necessary  to talk of power exercised upward as well as downward within the organization. 

Typically, power exercised downward uses the traditional forms of bribery and fear, whereas upward communication stresses accepting or acknowledging authority. Although the amount of research on the two way traffic is limited, what we do have centers about perceptions of what determines success or failure, in either direction.

Schilit and Locke (1982) note that the success or failure of both upward and downward exercises of power are contingent on three perceptions: the attitude of the receiver, the content and form of the message, and the competence and reputation of the sender.  In the upward exercise of power, close-minded supervisors distance themselves from the communication and generally are suspicious of  the competence and motivation of the sender. Similarly, in the downward exercise of power, supervisors who are short on trust and long on cynicism generally impose rather than solicit solutions.  In other words, short of replacing the gate keeper, the problem is overcoming the blockage of  perceptions. 

For many, all this may  resemble office politics and Dilbert-like power plays. And in that tit for tat, like often favors like: white hair is partial to white hair, ivy league to ivy league, gender to gender, etc. But climates and cultures have changed so much, so rapidly that perhaps the old style politics of power is being supplemented and in some cases replaced by the power of influence.

Her is a brief list of some organizational changes that have accommodated and in a few instances mandated a new role for influence:

  • Shift from mostly vertical to horizontal organizations requiring two way alignments.
  • The introduction of distributed leadership advocated by Greenleaf (1984) and Chifford PinchotIII (1987) which encourages the exercise of  leadership (and innovation) by everyone in the organization.
  • The notion of human and intellectual capital which requires up and down exchange for it to prosper.
  • The emphasis on thinking outside the box often compels deviant thinking which is not orthodox. Hewlett-Packard gives annual awards to employees for outrageous disobedience.
  • The comprehensive use of coaching in place of adversarial negotiations as a management tool for improving performance.
  • Coaching and managing up as well as down.
  • The extensive use of teams and collaborative management has introduced complex dynamics that are beyond the calipers of power politics. 
  • Finally, the reengineering of organizations and employees as well as all the empowering terms of stakeholders, gain sharing, internal customers, etc., all of which appears to have bypassed the traditional power grid for a new kind of partnership of power sharing, information and knowledge sharing, cross-training,  etc.

If influence is to supplement, compete with and perhaps eventually replace power, it should not, however, be primarily or solely as a byproduct of the above changes. Nor should be passed off glibly as the latest or deepest form of empowerment. If it has real substance, it should have minimally, content and process. It should be recognizable as a respectable way of thinking, conceptualizing, planning, anticipating and deciding. In other words, it should be a new tool for managers, senior staff and top executives. In short, a model of influence as the preferred form of power needs to be developed.  That is a tall order but perhaps a start can be made by examining  professionals to whom influence is their only stock and trade. I refer to the trusted advisor used confidentially by many CEO’s as the business conciliare or wise member of the family. 

The trusted advisor is not an executive coach, although he may have gained his experience as well as recognition in that role. The task of the executive coach is to make his client or CEO look good. The trusted advisor is less externally or action oriented . He is like a professor holding an open-ended, endless seminar similar to what takes place perhaps in "Tuesdays with Morrie."  Unlike a consultant or executive coach, he has no official status. He cannot even apply for the job because trusted advisors do not choose but are chosen. He may not even have a written contract. A handshake may have been all it takes. He may be asked to make house calls and be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Occasionally, he serves as an emissary attending meetings like a fly on the wall. More often than not, he is a kind of secret agent or more like Conrad’s secret sharer. He is usually paid very well. But for our purposes, the key is to determine, examine, and profile how he uses influence, how it works, what forms it takes, and why it is effective. That may help to shape a model of the power of influence for others to emulate. 

There are at least five ways and techniques in which the trusted advisor employs his influence:

  • Questioning
  • Repositioning
  • Persuading
  • Commiserating
  • Developing

Before examining each one, let us set the stage in which all this takes place. It involves a CEO who is used to getting his way; who has both a known and unknown capacity for fairness and self-indulgence; who is often wounded in one form or other and uses the confidential and intimate forum to vent, lick his wounds and receive absolution; who regularly may be excessively praised and never criticized; who seeks a neutral and non-competitive place to retreat to and ruminate; and who may have no one else to talk to or trust. In short, he is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, cocky and uncertain, in charge and overwhelmed,  assertive and weary. Indeed, such ambiguity may explain in part why the indirect and even oblique technique of influence works. It also may suggest why it may be particularly effective in upward presentation, communication and negotiation. The situations and egos are not unlike. 


The trusted advisor is a comprehensive master of questioning. He is the perfect example of a three year old’s constant "why’s" in adult form. In place of the obvious power play of challenging the process, the trusted advisor prefers instead to question it. "Why do you think we have that policy? Do you recall when it was put into place? By whom? For what reasons?" 

Influence to be effective has to value history ,background and context. Everything must be understood as imbedded.  Influence also must cherish and unearth assumptions and bring them to the surface so that Plato’s dictum - “ The unexamined life is not worth living” - would not apply.  Trusted advisors often have suggested that CEOs keep journals. Sometimes they do it together.

Questions are informative. Often they are penetrating. They always should be non-threatening. They are a form of inquiry not accusation.  Louis B. Mayer was fond of saying, “For your information, let me ask you a question.”  In other words, questioning can become an ingrown and internalized way of knowing. With typical Japanese rigor the question “why” asked a minimally of five times has an excellent chance of getting to root cause. It is a business version of therapy.

Questioning thus moves the seminar along and even allows for all sorts of marvelous detours and digressions. But the trusted advisor indeed may encourage some wandering because the longest way around may be ultimately the shortest way home. Besides, when both return to the point of origin, they are not the same as when they began. They carry with them some important freight, even some new eyes and ears to make new decisions. But perhaps the ultimate yield is to have the CEO affirm the inquiry approach by helping to shape his organization into a questioning culture . 

Kendall Murphy, originally a supervisor with Pacific Bell and subsequently a consultant, was able to have a profound effect on changing the culture of a major division simply by attending meetings and asking questions, mostly slippery and difficult. That took hold and the entire division became highly productive and innovative (Buchen and Rowley, 2000). 

Questioning became the lever of influence that turned his  division around. In the more intimate forum of the trusted advisor and the CEO, the goal is to turn the CEO around. By extension it may apply and be extended to the organization and to middle managers.


Here the focus is on exploring the extent to which we are affected, programmed and driven by our point of view and defined by where we stand. The role of the trusted advisor is to influence repositioning. For example, in the MIT Learning Organization Incubator, a standard exercise is to ask automotive engineers to identify their electrical needs. Typically, the battery dies. Then they are repositioned. They collectively become the battery and dispense what is needed to each. Everyone’s needs are met, the battery remains charged, and ready to offer a kick start.

Sometimes the bias appears permanent. One of  Saul Bellow’s characters argues “If your eyes are scratched, you see scratched.” Certain positions are enormously tenacious. Once trust is eroded, for instance, one may never believe the organization or the CEO again. Once lied to, cynicism may become the norm.

CEO’s typically favor certain strategies.  For the influence of the trusted advisor to work, it involves developing an inventory of the CEO’s predispositions. To elicit characteristic solutions or actions, the advisor may become involved in a reflective test:  “Isn’t it curious where we get our notions of reward and punishment in the first place. For example, American Indians never threaten shirkers who refuse to do their share of the work. They get whatever everyone gets: food, shelter, protection, etc. The only difference is when they get up to speak at the council meetings, nobody listens to them.” 

Cultural contrast especially in an increasingly globalized world, can become very effective ways of suggesting alternative values and positions. For example, the trusted advisor can say to the CEO, “What would you do if you had a no layoff policy such as they have in Japan? What kind of problems would that create for you and what kind of problems would it solve?”

Repositioning not only can serve as a way of thinking outside the box, but also has the practical value of factoring into decision and planning the extent to which one is positioning oneself for the next step and then the next. It is like a chess game in which every move may really already house five subsequent moves. Above all, repositioning forces exchanges of subject and object, distance and proximity, perceptions and beliefs. 

The value of influence is to structure a double gain: to arrive at a new  position but which is convergent -- that  preserves both commonality and difference. Rather than argue solely that everyone is the same or that everyone is different, the final position perhaps should be "Every body is really the same, differently." Convergence, synthesis and integration are the ultimate gains of repositioning. But it is a slow, oblique, often digressive, but not a pummeling or coercive process of getting there. Influence always offers two bounties: more is there at the end, and the future becomes more available. 


It is amazing how many CEOs and leaders in general have a passion for remaining private, aloof and even unseen. And then when they do emerge, it is to occupy the bully pulpit and rant or rave or scold or inspire.  But it is the task to the trusted advisor to suggest that leaders be experts at the task of displaying executive wisdom and shrewdness about making decisions. But what about communicating them? What about sharing the data and the thinking employed in making the decisions? Why not talk about the competition and industry . Above all, why not share a CEO’s  constant dialogue with the future? Finally, why not do it now, urges the trusted advisor, when anxiety is high and cohesion is threatened? Bring together and heal by the influence of  truth, facts and smarts. Use the power of truth telling and visioning.

Those at the top regularly underestimate the regular need to function as a persuasive and informed source on the one hand and the hunger on the part of employees for straight talk on the other hand. But it has to be rigorous, exacting and, if need be, tough. It should not be a public relations hype. That is what executive coaches urge. Indeed, that is what further marks the difference between executive coaches and trusted advisors. 

Executive coaches are preoccupied with externals. They stress symbolic emblems and occasions because they are determined to make the CEO look good. The trusted advisor  emphasizes internals. His basic intelligence, the value of past experience and knowledge, a core of principles that address the welfare and capacity of employees — these and many other deep-seated and deeply held beliefs are the stuff of the dialogue  between executive and advisor. And when they gradually emerge under the gentle prodding of questions and dialogue, the advisor then seizes the moment. He suggests that is where his power and authority reside, not in his office or title, but his ability to persuade others that he is worthy of being their leader in the first place. And that is something that is not achieved once and for all time but requires constant renewal and commitment again and again.


One of the recurrent refrains of the Old Testament is recollection: remembering that you were once a stranger in a strange land, that you were once a slave, that you were without leaders or a moral code to guide your way or behaviors. To these generic recollections, the trusted advisor has to elicit a series of more personal ones about poverty, family, friends, society, neighborhoods, communities, etc. And then he also has to summon up basic assumptions about work, of  bosses that he has, mentors, fellow employees, chain of command, structures, etc. These are not tapped all at once or in one single marathon session, but called up as situations occur. The purpose is to task decisions with empathetic intelligence. 

Executives need to be reminded of pain and frustration. They need to feel or feel again what it may be like to lose a job, take a pay cut, not secure an increase. They need to recall what it is like to have a lousy boss, working with colleagues who do not have the requisite job skill sets, environments which are punitive or harsh — in short, deprivation, despair and dependency. And they further need to understand that they have power to do something about those conditions or situations or they do not. And where they do they ought to use power for both humane as well as profitable ends. And when they do not, they minimally should commiserate and communicate their awareness of fellow feeling. But in either case, they do not have the option to remain safe, insulated, removed, smug or unfeeling. 

Trusted advisors are constantly running a permanent seminar on leadership -- on being big, taking the high road, and caring. The trusted advisor is more than a conscience — he is the recollected embodiment of an executive’s total life turned to empathetic analysis and decision making. Those who commiserate are made whole, and in turn lead organizations that heal and prosper.


One of Robert K. Greenleaf’s recurrent goals for executives is “Develop everyone you touch.” When an executive laments the performance of a senior vice president, the advisor asks, “What have you done to make him better? As you sow, so shall you reap.”

Good executives develop senior staff. Some spend as much as fifty per cent of their time doing that and thus sharpening the saw. But that mentoring is not devoted exclusively to individual skills but to collaborative skills.  Such horizontal alignment will show a multifold return on investment of the CEO’s time. With that, he does not have to create a separate succession plan. Not only will the investment of his own time enhance his own performance,  but also in turn each vice president will vertically extend development down and up the organization.

In the process, the CEO  may replicate the model of the trusted advisor with his senior staff. In that way,  he provides the ultimate affirmation of that questioning, repositioning, persuading, commiserating and developing role. And that is not a bad series of outcomes for the top leader, his senior management team, the employees and the organization. 

And the gains of trusted advisor? Aside from his very generous pay check, he finds satisfaction in the fact that his spirit and gifts remain alive and vibrant in the various incarnations of those who make things happen with intelligence and compassion.

Irving H. Buchen is a Senior Associate with Comwell, Consultants to Management, and HR Partners, HR Consultants, and is on the faculty at International College. Contact Irving H. Buchen by e-mail: .

Many more articles in Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001 by Irving H. Buchen. All rights reserved.

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