Tom Sawyer Management Approach - 5 Steps to Increase Your Leadership

By Barry Pruitt

dateSun, Nov 10, 2019 @ 09:00 AM

It was 6:30 pm on a summer evening. Since I had agreed that my youngest son could go out with friends only after the grass had been cut, I felt confused. I heard the upstairs shower running while at the same time I still heard the roar of the lawnmower going back and forth on the side of our home. I looked out the window and there, cutting our grass, was one of my son’s friends.

As my son emerged from his bathroom, I inquired how he had gotten a friend to mow the grass? He replied, “I told him if he wanted me to go out tonight, he needed to cut the grass while I took a shower and cleaned up for the evening.”  I knew then that my son could have taught Tom Sawyer a thing or two about a whitewashed fence – and I realized that Tom Sawyer, the fictional character, was actually a great leader. 

I’ve often marveled at the ability some leaders have to get things done through others with a Tom Sawyer like influence, and I have seen it used as a powerful tool for building a career or company. In working with leaders in over a dozen different countries, I’ve confirmed that many of the best leaders in companies don’t have a title commensurate with their ability to influence. How would you rate your influence (minus the title) in your world? What can you do to increase your influence and overall effectiveness? 

Here are five influence growing approaches that I’m confident would have been endorsed by Tom Sawyer:

  1. Give your social network a check-up. Widen the boundaries of your influence, and give yourself a chance to make connections that you may not otherwise make. Look at how your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter profiles compare to peers in your industry. Do you need a social media facelift? Actively increase your connections, friends or followers while investigating new industry groups. Be sure to drop those that aren’t of interest. Focus in these areas to broaden your network. Then, strategically begin to publish information that reinforces your positions.
  2. Repair damaged relationships.Once a professional relationship has been damaged, it can be difficult to know where to begin the process of mending it. Tread carefully when attempting to resolve past issues. It’s often more effective to offer genuine praise, sharing and supporting opinions that the offended person previously expressed. Genuine praise will go a long way toward softening the edges of your past interactions and remembering his or her opinions, especially in a public setting, will show respect and regard.  As a general rule of thumb, use face-to-face approaches if there is a chance of being misunderstood or if the relationship hangs in the balance. I call it people skills. If you’re just passing information or details, text, e-mail, or chat will suffice.
  3. Focus on the positive attributes of others. Dale Carnegie was one of the first to teach how to do this in How To Win Friends and Influence People. Get a copy of the book and read his 21 principles. This is the age-old practice of fanning the behaviors that you want to see more of and tamping down less positive attributes. If you communicate to others, and they “feel” that you "understand and respect" their passion or skills, your influence will be increased.
  4. Focus on benefits – that is, benefits to others. This is not intended as bribery. It’s a fact of human nature that people are generally more apt to do as you wish if there is personal benefit.  A focus on how you might benefit others virtually ensures their attention and helps increase your ability to influence. Rhythm Systems is my first real corporate job, and I wouldn’t have accepted it if it weren’t for our leadership. Our CEO and business execution expert Patrick Thean consistently helps team members grow their skills in business – and their job authority. That influence was in spite of his title, not because of it – all based on an “others” benefit focus. How might you practice this with your team?
  5. Ask questions. Management guru Peter Drucker points out that exceptional leaders know how to ask questions—the right questions. Exceptional influencers ask questions of themselves, and of those they attempt to influence. This technique seems effortless in its ability to influence people.

Here’s a practical example of applying questions for influence: 

At your next team meeting, ask each member to write down the answer to this question, “In terms of work, TomSawyerSchoolofInfluencewhat lights your fire?” After a few minutes, ask the second question, “In terms of work, what burns you out?” Be sure everyone has a written response and then hear each answer to the first question. Jot down what they really seem to enjoy doing and use this information the next time you consider project assignments.

Then, use the second question to discuss what burns them out. If you can, change it. If not, attempt to reassign. If you can do neither, perhaps you can promise a future change. At the least, include it in their Job Scorecard along with a plan to help them improve.  

Finally, self assess by answering these questions “yes” or “no” according to how you typically behave in an influence situation. Do you:

  1. Begin by listing all the benefits? 
  2. Over promise? 
  3. Talk more than listen? 
  4. Say “I’m sorry” fairly often? 
  5. Dislike new experiences? 
  6. Believe in all your ideas equally? 
  7. Present ideas because it’s your job to do so? 
  8. Dislike meeting new people? 
  9. Hesitate to present ideas? 
  10. Resist change? 

Although influential (and confident) people will have a majority of “no” answers, the real value of this exercise lies in honest self-assessment. This is the beginning of true emotional intelligence, which is the foundation of appropriate influence. Building your influence strength is often all you need to move a situation beyond impasse. I’ve seen teams, negotiations, competitors, partners and hundreds of deadlocked situations resolved by leveraging the strength of influence.

Use the above 5 approaches to get your Tom Sawyer on and move your team or company forward!


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Barry Pruitt


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