Giving your team ‘Impact’ status

Spheres of Influence

Part of good leadership is understanding the dynamics of influence – where you can influence and how far you can extend your influence. Understanding this dynamic is very important for new leaders in particular. Steven Covey said “You take control of that which you can control”. In other words a leader that can focus his energies and attention on his/her own department will strengthen that department, making it more influential in a broader organisational sense. 

We will consider this model in the context of a school, but the principles are, of course, transferable across a range of industries and environments.  At one end of the scale we have the teachers. They have responsibility for how the students in their classes perform on a daily basis. They may be responsible for making sure that their learning environment (or their classrooms) are suitable for students to learn in, and that the students are given time for relaxing, for learning, and so on. They hold a high level of influence over what goes on in their physical teaching space but a relatively low level of influence anywhere else.

Further up the scale we have the Headteacher. She has, of course, got an overview of the whole school. It is ultimately her responsibility to oversee what happens at the school, how the children learn, how the school looks to the outside world, and so on. She would do this through the creation of policies and other decisions which are far more distant from the actual learning processes but without them the necessary structures would not exist, probably resulting in chaos in the school as a whole. She holds a relatively high level of influence over this aspect of school life. You can extrapolate these two examples to fill in the gaps for the department leaders and other roles within an organisation. 

It is also important to understand that a single person can occupy various spheres of influence depending on his / her specific roles. People in schools, and many other organisations, often take on several roles; each with a different set of responsibilities. Depending on these responsibilities, their levels of influence will vary. Clearly, in these cases the spheres of influence shift accordingly. So, it’s important to realise that this graphic applies in principle more than in reality! It is worth cross referencing this with the module on distributed leadership to understand just how flexible we need to be when applying these models. But the models are, nevertheless, very useful in helping us understand how systems and processes such as appraisals, can be set up to best help the organisation develop and grow, and to suit the needs of the individuals within them. 

So what does this mean for middle leaders in an organisation? The most skilled leaders will understand where they can exert their influence to help people within their teams progress and grow professionally. Good leaders will provide people with more responsibility where appropriate, allowing them to take on opportunities in areas where they have influence. Take for example a year group leader who notices that one of the teachers in their team has a particular interest or expertise in the development of innovative displays. This teacher’s classroom always looks inviting and there is evidence of a great amount of thoughtful creativity coming from the teacher. The year group leader then approaches the office manager to see if the teacher can contribute to the design and development of the school’s marketing materials. In this small example the year group leader has leveraged their influence outside their own team, to seek an opportunity for their teacher. This is leadership. 

Leaders who help team members in this way generate large amounts of trust within their teams and for many employees, these sorts of opportunities are extremely important. Research would suggest that this is particularly true of younger employees, or those from the ‘millennial generation’.  Richard Branson said “Train people up so that they can leave you, treat them well enough so that they don’t want to”. If people are constrained simply to their own roles because that is how the team is structured, it is inevitable that there would be a high turnover of staff within that team because team members would eventually seek other opportunities in the organisation. But if you, as the leader of the team, pay attention to the growing professional needs of your team members, you can still provide opportunities to grow professionally whilst they maintain their role in your team. The key is to make sure that you as the leader, are flexible and creative with how you lead your team.  

So now that we understand a bit about this model, what do the spheres of influence mean in practice for the organisation? 

  1. It is useful for an organisation to be able to define the relative levels of influence that any employee can have based on the position that they hold within the organisation. This provides clarity in terms of expectations and outcomes for individuals. For example, in a school, it could not be expected that a junior teacher be responsible for the development of policy on curriculum, but it may be expected that a head of a department is. Conversely, it cannot be expected that the Head of department is directly responsible for delivering lessons effectively to the students, whereas it can be expected of the classroom teachers. So in this way the sphere of influence can be used to define where these boundaries lie, and then make sure that this is clear in the job descriptions of each role.
  2. Secondly, it is useful for organisations to understand spheres of influence in the structuring of their appraisal systems. Understanding spheres of influence leads to definition of job roles and this will lead into what needs to come out of each employee’s appraisal. It would seem pointless appraising a teacher on the overall effectiveness of the Maths curriculum when this is the framework that they have been given to work within! 
  3. From an operational perspective it is also important to understand Spheres of influence. For example meetings and decision making forums can target employees who can meaningfully contribute to decision making. For example if a policy is being developed that involves the implementation of a Maths scheme, the Head of the Maths department can be, and should be, involved. 
  4. And finally, from a strategic perspective, discussions are often more productive if the right people are involved, those who understand the history of the organisation, or those who have the necessary influence to be able to contribute at a higher level, to make sure that the organisation progresses in the right way. 

 It is also important that employees understand the model for the following reasons: 

  1. Firstly, all employees benefit from a clear understanding of their responsibilities and relative levels of influence. This empowers them with knowledge of where they can contribute or where they still require development or progress within the organisation to reach that point. It limits the chances that people will try to operate ‘above their pay grade’.
  2. Micromanagement is one of the most eroding practices within any organisation and a clear understanding of spheres of influence removes the chances that this could start to occur. It is, for example, unlikely that a Headteacher will be welcomed in a classroom should he/she start to take over a lesson! And nor should they be. 
  3. And thirdly, an understanding of Spheres of Influence can give an employee a route to becoming more involved in the organisation, something which many young or new employees would value, especially if they are ambitious for their own career development.


  1. Knowing your organisation’s spheres of influence will give you a good idea of roles and responsibilities
  2. The most effective you can be is to operate within your own sphere of influence.
  3. If you wish to navigate your career upwards, look to expanding your sphere of influence through careful negotiation and strategic and careful negotiation with the right people in the right spheres of influence.

Remember, “you take control of that which you can control”

Point of Reflection

In many cases, people will have skills that they may have developed in their personal lives that are not exploited by their place of work. This could be by choice, or it could very likely be that we, as employees, tend to separate our personal lives from our work lives, and so tend not to think that our ‘personal life’ skills can possibly be relevant.

When you reflect on your personal skill sets, do you feel that you are being optimally useful to your organisation? Which skills do you possess that you feel could be useful in expanding your influence in your place of work?

Personal Development Activity

Strategic Activity (1.5 hours)

In your current position you will hold a certain level of influence. If you are leading a team already then this influence is likely to be greater than if you’re not. This activity will help you think through some practical ways you can begin to increase the level of influence that you currently have.

In your leadership journal:

  1. Write a list of things that you take care of as part of your role.
  2. Make sure you have three different coloured highlighters, one red, green and yellow/orange.
  3. With the red highlighter, highlight all those elements that you have performed since you started at your current organisation.
  4. With the orange highlighter, highlight all those elements that you picked up subsequent to starting your current position but that are not managerial or leadership tasks.
  5. With the green highlighter, highlight all elements that are leadership responsibilities, regardless of when you picked these up.

Next, choose one of the green highlighted items that involves you dealing with members outside of your immediate team. This may be a colleague who leads another team, or it could be your line manager. Arrange a meeting with them to discuss how you can take the skills you have used in this highlighted element, and expand these to another initiative within the organisation. Together map out a plan of action to implement this.