When Followers Don’t Follow: Cultivating Influence

Read the series.

You can’t convince them to do it. You can’t make them do it, but you know it’s the right course of action, and you feel responsible. What can you do?

Several common responses should be promptly rejected. Empty threats should be off the table for Christian parents, spouses, coaches, teachers, coordinators, etc. (Eph. 6:9). That option only builds resentment, damages relationships, and reduces whatever respect the leader has. Ranting and sulking certainly don’t help (Gen. 42:36). Quietly stewing in bitterness finds its way out eventually, too (Num. 20:11-12).

Better options include reexamining our sense of responsibility, reexamining the potential tools, and refocusing on the tool of influence.


When I find myself seemingly powerless to move others to believe and act as I think they should, the problem may be that I’ve come to some inaccurate conclusions about the scope of my responsibility. Is what this individual or group thinks or does really on my shoulders? If I’ve been diligent, does God really hold be responsible for the outcome? The answer to both questions may well be negative.

But stamping “not my problem” on the situation might just be laziness. Since stewardship is pretty much the meaning of life (Gen. 2:15, Luke 19:12-13, 2 Cor. 5:10), we owe it to God and those entrusted to us to step back, clear our thinking, and revisit the question of what tools might be effective. Is there really no argument they’ll find convincing? Is there really no leverage (whether a positive or negative consequence) that might be both proper and effective?

The third option is to fall back on the strategy of influence. In this series, I’ve been distinguishing between efforts to motivate using short-term consequences (“coercion”), efforts to develop genuine understanding and belief (“persuasion”) and efforts to indirectly produce outcomes based on our standing in the eyes of those we want to shape—“influence.”

Coercion aims for a quick (though usually pretty temporary) result. It’s most useful when a situation requires an immediate response or as reinforcement in combination with other tools. Persuasion is more patient. It aims for a deeper, more eduring result, with the trade-off that it takes more time to do the job. Influence requires even more patience, is the least direct of the three, and is most important as support for the other two.

When followers aren’t following, the problem may be an underlying lack of personal respect that weakens persuasive efforts and freights even well-chosen coercive steps with usually high levels of resentment.

Why Cultivate Influence

Whether followers are following or not, it’s worth the effort to consciously develop stronger influence. Here’s some reasons why.

1. We’re told we should highly value a good reputation.

There’s a fine but important line here. Jesus rebukes the unbelieving and self-serving religious leaders of His day for doing their good deeds “in order to be seen” (Matt. 6:1, 6:5). Further, Paul contrasts acting “to please men” vs. acting to please the Lord (1 Thess. 2:4, Col. 3:22).

At the same time, we’re encouraged to value the good opinion of others and highly value our reputation.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. (ESV, Luke 2:52)

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. (Prov. 3:3–4)

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. (Prov. 22:1)

Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. (Rom. 14:18)

for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man. (2 Cor. 8:21)

Among other things, proper regard for how others see us requires that we see “favor” as a means to the higher end of fulfilling the duties God has assigned to us. Further, we really don’t want everyone’s favor. Jesus had the respect and esteem of the right sort of people. The wrong sort wanted Him dead!

2. We’re encouraged to make our example a priority.

The NT emphasizes the importance of example even for those in roles with abundant opportunities to persuade.

[S]hepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight … 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:2–3)

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity,  (Titus 2:7)

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Phil. 3:17)

It isn’t just for pastors, either.

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. (1 Thess. 1:6–7)

3. Respect makes the other leadership tools work better.

Influence is like the WD-40 of effecting change in others. When there are penalties attached (coercion), a respected authority figure is more effective than a despised one. Citizens comply with the law more readily. Children obey parents with less resistance. Employees follow procedure with more diligence and a more positive attitude.

Efforts to persuade are also enhanced if we have the high regard of our listener(s). You can’t win them over to your idea until they’re willing to pay attention. And if they believe in your competance and good will, they’ll be that much more open to the possibility that you might be right.

Consequently, Paul addresses the Roman commander in Greek (Acts 21:37), then—after gaining permission to talk to the crowd—addresses the gathered Jews in Hebrew (Acts 21:40-22:1). Though Paul’s opportunity to develop standing/respectability/ethos with his audience was extremely limited, making the most of that tiny window of opportunity was worth the trouble. The Jerusalem mob was not persuaded (!), but God was pleased (Acts 22:22, 23:11).

The pattern is even more dramatic in God’s communication with His people. In establishing the Mosaic Covenant, for example, God not only promises numerous blessings and curses related to His people’s conduct (coercion) but also argues that the covenant arrangement is a great honor and blessing for them (persuasion), and wraps and suffuses the whole effort in repeated declarations of who He is (influence)—the refrain, “I am the Lord,” occurs 74 times in Exodus, Levitcus and Deuteronomy!

The whole mix appears freqently in short passages such as this one:

And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, 38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, 39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. 40 Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time. (Deut. 4:37–40)

4. Cultivating respect and example is never a waste.

Even if influence doesn’t have the hoped-for impact on others in a particular case, it’s not a waste. The kinds of attitudes and behaviors that earn the respect and esteem of good people are worth developing regardless of results.

If we have a well-informed commitment to fulfilling our God given responsibilities, we can’t go wrong if we take steps to enhance our influence. Someone suggested these steps include the following:

  • What you admire and respect in others: aim for that.
  • What people you respect seem to value in others: aim for that.
  • What makes you lose respect for yourself: avoid that.
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There are 2 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Yesterday, I started the day by reminding my children that if they didn't buckle down and do their homework, their career would suck.  In the afternoon, three of them were running in cross country practice, and when they ran past a construction site, a couple of the workers yelled at them "Stay in school!  This job sucks!"

Said a lot more to them about the matter than their desk jockey dad ever could.  These guys knew, and were demonstrating, that what they said was true.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


It's a bit cliche but still rings true: "Your talk talks and your walk talks but your walk talks louder than your talk talks."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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