On Leadership, Influence, and Contempt For Followers…

Dr. Jenn McCabe

Founder of Radical Relating, Director of the World Makers Leadership Program, and CEO of Lead. Gather. Relate.

Influence is not leadership—which is not to say that leaders don’t influence. We do. Let’s pick this apart for a minute. We accept influence all the time. I accept influence from:

  • my husband on his preference for an afternoon sweet treat
  • a fellow business owner on how to manage a project
  • a family member on her wants for Greek over Italian food
  • a leader who is asking me to think differently about myself


Influence is a common occurrence.

Unfortunately, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s well understood. More often than not, we think that it was our action that caused the other to do, be, or think differently.

We say:

I helped her see where she was stuck.”
I let her grow when I cleared away her confusion.”
I allowed the team to do the project independently.”
I permitted her to make the decision for herself.”
I empowered her to see her relationships in a new light.”

Now what I’m about to say is going to throw you, so I’m asking for a little patience and willingness on your part to stick with me for a minute. I’m going to connect the dots between influence, contempt, and leadership. But before I do, I have to tease out some uncomfortable truths.


You can’t change someone’s life.

You don’t open the door, show the way, or lay out the path.

And most importantly, you do not get to take credit for what she did with what you offered.

You can only attempt to influence. If she accepts your influence, the gains she makes are hers—not yours. You don’t have the power to make another person do, be, or think differently. That power resides in her and her alone.

You don’t open the door; she knocks.

You don’t show the way; she walks with you.

You don’t lay out the path; she charts her own course.

You don’t influence her; she grants you permission.

She picked you—remember? She stood up. She did the brave thing. While it’s tempting to make it about you, it’s imperative that you understand your role in this equation. You didn’t do what she did. You didn’t grow. You didn’t change. She isn’t “helped” or “changed” by you—she committed and took action.

You invite. You offer.

You ask (and sometimes, you ask again). You listen.

When you listen to understand, opportunities to influence abound—and the interaction is one of two sovereigns relating to each other.

Here’s what that interaction contains: When I want to influence, I ask, “I’ve got something on this, do you want it?” Permission to influence is granted to me when she says yes. When she says yes, I offer what I have in the form of resources. Resources may be things like: time, opportunity, money, experience, knowledge, or skills.

She decides what to take, what to leave, and what to do.

The result is hers and not mine.

While the result may be thanks to me, it sure as hell is not because of me. Why is this distinction so critical? It boils down to contempt—contempt that is far too often found wrapped up in a pretty bow and offered as the gift of “helping.”


The act of contempt is born when you believe you know better, think better, are better than another person.

It sends the message that you flat out think the other is beneath your regard.

Don’t think you have contempt for others? Take a look at your language. Do you frequently use words like help, allow, let, permit, empower? Are you using those words to connect your action to her outcome?

If so, you’re attempting to place yourself in a superior position. This is a full demonstration of contempt for the other person, a person who—like you—is sovereign. You have the same agency she does. Don’t get confused by your expert status, positional authority, or extensive experience—you and she have the same will to act upon.

Here’s where contempt connects with your leadership.

Unless we put our contempt in the light, look at it, and dance with our own hypocrisies and contradictions, we risk compromising our integrity. We risk our integrity by denying the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. I know I act contemptuously now and again. I also know what I’m up to in those moments. I’ve done the work to address my contempt. I know what decisions I want to make to take care of myself, and that means my integrity and character are strengthened, not weakened by the situation.

Now there are people who leverage contempt intentionally. I don’t want to address those individuals here.

I’m talking to those of us hell bent on making a difference in this world.

Those of us on a mission with a vision to do some serious good in the world—not at the expense of others, but in service to others.

Why do we act contemptuously? The reasons are as varied as we are, but one thing we all seem to have in common to varying degrees is that our contempt is often grounded in a dependency of which we are unaware. Dependencies are areas of ourselves in need of development.

Carmen, one of our World Makers Leadership Program students, summed up her experience with contempt this way: “I’m not okay with where I’m at in that moment and I leverage contempt to ensure that I am not alone with that insecurity. When I help, I’m trying to make myself feel better, to manage my insecurities by using another person.”

Carmen’s talking explicitly about dependency.

She doubts her own capacity and in that doubt enlists external forces, in this case another person, to assuage those doubts.

This is an act of dependency. Dependency is often accompanied by a decision we all make from time to time—avoiding responsibility. In that moment, she’s not owning her insecurity. Instead, she’s put getting her need met on the shoulders of another.

When you are dependent and attempting to avoid responsibility, two of the go-to power moves for a dependent person are manipulation and coercion. The aim? Why, to feel better, of course!

And this is where contempt comes in. When we think we are better than the other person, it gives us a false state of self-acceptance. Carmen beautifully illustrated this point. And bravely, I might add. Thanks for letting me share this Carmen.


The problem contempt presents for your leadership?

Well, if you leverage contempt dressed up as influence or helping, you will dismantle your connection to those who follow you. What you are doing is attempting to place yourself above your followers—you are not above them. And eventually your followers will notice what you’re doing (even if they don’t name it outright) and they will leave.

Now some of you may be thinking I’ve lost it and are DONE with this post and maybe even with me. You may be thinking, “I do not have contempt for anyone. I respect and love everybody.”

I call bullshit.

If you’re utterly offended by what I said—you have an opportunity. You have a call to develop your character. Are you willing to pull back the curtain and really dig into that tension? That outrage? If so, I’m interested. I want you to consider with great depth how you may be relating to those who follow you. The words you choose matter. The tension you may be feeling, just like Carmen’s, matters. Let’s do something generative with this and clear the way to influence that regards you and those you serve with equal agency

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