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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Beyond thought leadership: 3 principles of influence [Wise Wednesdays][Wise Wednesdays]

Every year since 2014, I’ve given an interactive lecture for Master’s students at UCL on the obesity pandemic, social inequality and economic transition. The US is the epicentre but populations are affected worldwide including in low- and middle-income countries.

The students seem to enjoy the lecture because we explore the complex global mechanics behind an everyday phenomenon but also the practical element – the application of statistics and epidemiology to the real world.

Having been among the students at one time, I know they aspire to good exam results and a qualification from one of the world’s top universities. But that they also want to make a positive difference in the world. Otherwise, they could go into the private sector and make a mouth-watering salary.

And while they’ll be expected to show world class scientific thinking and synthesis skills in academic and policy environments - by articulating their thoughts and putting forward persuasive arguments - being a ‘thought leader’ is not enough anymore.

As a scientist, I know the importance of logos (rational argument, evidence, etc). But in a world populated by volatile but charismatic politicians, and saturated with clever emotional marketing, reason alone is not enough to make a real impact on people.

So at some point, I usually set them an exercise like: you have 30 seconds in a lift with a finance minister who could save lives if you persuade them to fund your policy. What do you do?

The students’ creativity in their responses is always refreshing.

This year, in a bid to take these future experts beyond ‘thought leadership’ in the academic sense, I invited them to draw on Aristotle’s 3 principles of persuasion or influence:

1. Ethos: your credibility

2. Logos: your use of reason

3. Pathos: your appeal to emotions

Notice the use of these in talks and speeches and whether they help sway you.

I imagined how these principles might map on to a type of leader below, as it’s always worth considering our own proclivities to become more self-aware and therefore effective transformation agents.

Which type of leader do you incline towards?

Thought leader (stimulator)

They’re the go-to opinion leaders. They offer brilliant ideas that take the human intellect to new heights of creativity and innovation. They offer good points, that are well made and that people want to repeat. They’re so well versed in a subject area that they can abstract concepts to multiple levels and distil complex ideas. The risk is prideful intellectualism and a disconnection from reality (resulting in the disenfranchisement of large sections of society as we’ve seen in the US and UK).

Heart-leader (harmoniser)

They understand people. They can sense where connection is possible but also where tensions, frictions and vulnerabilities might be in the relational fabric. They’re the sentinels who can pick up trouble and warn the group as well as undertake the difficult relational repair work and so heal divides and bridge silos. They’re essential to bringing multi-origin teams together to address complex problems. The risk is sentimentalism. Unfortunately, they’re undervalued for being too ‘sensitive’ or ‘emotional’.

Presence leader (calibrator)

They emanate a sense of peace without ever seeming to consume or need much. They only appear to be noticed when they want to and you can never quite box them into a category. They don’t follow a formula or ideology but they seem to have the right answers at the right time. They don’t get too excited about anything. They are ‘safety makers’ amid complexity and connect people to a sense of something greater. The risk is cult formation. Unfortunately, they’ve been lost as a recognised role with the diminishment of traditions of contemplation and mysticism historically associated with religion.

Of course, all 3 of these facets of influence and leadership can exist together. You’ll probably recognise them in leaders you admire. Notice how they manifest in yourself. I believe Aristotle’s intuitions about the three principles of influence were right. But that he stopped short of articulating the importance of the quality of presence in his ‘ethos’ as something that is felt under the surface rather than attributed to credentials or character alone. It’s this part – presence - that can draw out the greatness in others and supersede argumentative persuasion or appeal to emotions.

Stepping into the public conversation can feel overwhelming.

It can be even more daunting to step away from academic, expert style, technical writing into something a bit more vulnerable that reveals emotion and a gentle curiosity that leaves space for the unknown.

But if the American presidency has confirmed one thing, it’s that people do not respond solely to reason…and we must heed the deeper insights of that lesson and its wisdom.

Indeed, (Human) nature abhors a (political) vacuum and it gets filled pretty quickly with activity. The longer you wait to make your rich, multi-faceted contribution, the more likely another (less qualified, less ethical, and less insightful person) will step in. Then we’ll be left wondering why the world is so unfair.

So I sometimes invite my clients, many of whom are self-identified introverts or simply have no taste for being in the public conversation limelight, to reflect on the following question:

if not you, then who?

If you look under your fears, aren’t you the type of leader the world is desperate for?

Look for a moment and feel free to tell me what you discover.

Have a great week,


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