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Today, the idea of an “influencer” has taken on a life of its own, and it is well on its way to becoming a legitimate, if often-mocked, career path. It’s not hard to see why. In a digital age when we are bombarded with advertising messages and when the purchase options available for everything from socks to vacation packages can be overwhelming, people want someone they admire or respect to help them make good decisions. Businesses have realized that in any sector or niche, the endorsement of a person who is known and respected carries more weight with their target market than generic mass marketing, and they are adjusting their allocation of marketing dollars accordingly. For example, there were 1.26 million brand-sponsored Instagram posts in 2016 and an estimated 4.95 million in 2019, meaning there was a nearly 400 percent increase in brand-sponsored social media activity in four years,3and the growth rate shows no sign of slowing. It took me about an hour to sit down and map out a route, identify good places for clues and write out the hints for each place on my treasure hunt when I set it up.

In any group, society, or social structure—including the one you lead—some people have more influence than others. Maybe they’ve been around for a long time, maybe they have a lot of knowledge, maybe they have strong and loyal relationships, or maybe they are just really good at convincing people. Whatever it is, if you can tap into that influence, you can multiply your leadership effectiveness. People listen to influencers. What influencers think matters; what they say carries weight; what they endorse or reject sways opinions. Keep in mind that “influencer” is not a title people bestow upon themselves arbitrarily.

There is a difference between a self-proclaimed “influencer” and someone who actually has influence and whose opinion is respected and followed by a large group of people. One of the reasons social media influencers are the butt of so many jokes is because a high number of followers don’t always translate into influence. For example, when a young Instagram celebrity with 2.6 million followers tried to launch a clothing line, she couldn’t sell even the 36 T-shirts she needed for the initial production run. Although multiple factors may have contributed to the failed product launch, the fact remains that titles, fame, followers, or even success in other areas don’t automatically give anyone a platform that translates into effective influence.

True influencers are thought leaders, not just social media celebrities. According to leadership consultant Denise Brosseau of the Thought Leadership Lab, thought leaders are “the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise.” Their influence comes from their power to shape the opinions and decisions of other people in particular areas, and this power is based on things such as expertise in their field, relatability to their audience, and a history of good advice. That last one, history, is one of the most important, because a good track record builds trust equity with followers. True influence can’t be faked, forced, or rushed, which is precisely why it’s so coveted—and so powerful.

As a leader, it’s important for you to identify the true influencers in your team and get them on your side. Doing so is not manipulation—it’s respect. These individuals have earned their influence precisely because they take their power seriously, and they won’t risk losing it on a whim. If they are hesitant to endorse an idea, you are wise to ask yourself why. Maybe they know something you don’t. Aligning yourself with influencers doesn’t mean you surrender your leadership, allow them to block your initiatives, or cave to their whims. It simply means you work to get their buy-in, to win their hearts and loyalty, because they are important players on the team. If you make them upset, you’ll make a lot of people upset. If you lose their respect, you’ll lose the respect of the people who respect them. That’s the worst-case scenario, though. If you are the right leader for the job, and if the culture of the team is healthy, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself at odds with your influencers. Neither of you is the bad guy, even if you have different opinions, and both of your roles—leader and grassroots influencer—are important.