The Many Faces of Influence (On Influence – Part III)

In our first blogs, we talked about big ideas, and how they wander into our lives from way up top. We could continue to draw examples from the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, and other elite organizations, but we wonder how effective we would be in clarifying our point about organizational and individual influence.  Perhaps you would come to view organization influence as the exclusive domain of large powerful organizations.

Organizational influence actually happens at many levels. To understand it more fully, let’s take a look at it through the lens of a kaleidoscope–with each manual turn generating a different prism on its myriad faces. You might be surprised how familiar the concept really is.

Let’s take a look at one scenario.   

fish apextribune dot com

The tsunami that tore apart hundreds of thousands of communities around the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 was among the deadliest natural disasters to ever occur. In Koh Lanta, Thailand, Ampai Madsaron and her family were among the lucky ones to survive. Shelter and food had become scarce, and as Ampai tells us, “People didn’t want to fish or eat seafood because there were still bodies in the sea.” Ampai was a health volunteer with the nearby hospital and leader of the local women’s group, and soon enough, she became a UNICEF focal point for her community. She worked with UNICEF to distribute food and supplies in her village, making sure that everybody got a fair share; she set up a business with other women drying and selling fish, and within a few years, Ampai managed to even buy extra equipment like wooden buckets, ice coolers, and salt and extra fish “when we couldn’t catch enough.” In partnership with UNICEF, a workshop was built where fish could be cut and dried, and as Ampai notes, “We used some of the profits to support elderly and vulnerable villagers.” For Ampai, partnering with the local UNICEF organization was part of her usual approach to life and her community. “I like to help other people,” she explained, “It’s a great feeling when the whole village works together.”[1]

The story of Ampai and her efforts to bring change in her community together with UNICEF is a good illustration of how individuals can bring change at a familial and community level by forming a coalition with a large organization that is legitimate, trustworthy and equally committed to similar objectives of individuals and groups. In this case, we can observe what happens when the efforts and influence of one individual are combined with that of a large organization, and the strong nexus of influence that emerges.

Now, let’s turn the kaleidoscope 180 degrees to the right. What do we see?

Bike creative commons stockntap

On April 28, 2014, a tractor-trailer travelling on the busy St-Denis street in Montreal fatally hit cyclist, Mathilde Blais. This young woman’s death sparked an uproar of response on behalf of Montreal’s residents. The latest in a string of recent cyclists’ deaths, this incident served as a catalyst for mobilizing change.  Local cycling associations including Vélo Québec, the news media, and social media joined hands with local residents in the mounting frustration advocating Montreal City Hall to prioritize safer cycling streets in and around the city.  Québec’s cycling associations had been pushing for safer cycling streets in Montreal for some time and had generated limited response. It was however the combined voices–concretized by the clamour of the city’s residents, Québec’s cycling associations, and the support of Mayor Denis Coderre that created a raucous forcing city administrators to promptly respond to the crisis by unanimously adopting a motion calling for the revision of the Highway Safety Code that takes into account the growing presence of cyclists on urban roadways. Just over a year later, new bike-only lanes have been introduced in downtown Montreal, $12 million are being injected in the creation of new bike paths with the objective of adding 50km of new bike paths and lanes every year, and Montreal has emerged as North America’s cycling capital. In this case, the nexus between organizational influence and individual influence involved multiple partnerships and networks at a local level. Through a resounding nexus, the movement gained significant momentum and generated considerable influence and change at the community, regional, and political levels. Would the outcome have been the same if the cycling associations or residents had acted independently? We don’t think so.  The success of the movement in creating safer roads for cyclists depended on the combined influence generated by both, individuals and organizations. By working together, these entities created a strong movement for change.

Finally, let’s turn  the lens of the kaleidoscope about 90 degrees to our right.

We are at the Climate Summit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in September 2014. Actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio  was invited to address the world as the United Nations Messenger of Peace.  Listen to him speak.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 23: Actor Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, 2014 in New York City. The summit, which is meeting one day before the UN General Assembly begins, is bringing together world leaders, scientists and activists looking to curb climate change. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 23: Actor Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Is he speaking alone? What kind of influence is he exercising as a “concerned citizen” from an individual and organizational viewpoint? Let’s zoom in a little closer. Leonardo DiCaprio is a globally recognized Hollywood actor renowned for his blockbuster film roles. In 1998, he created the Leondardo DiCaprio foundation to raise awareness about pressing environmental concerns, including climate change. On September 23, 2014, under the coalition comprised of DiCaprio, his foundation, the United Nations, and the Climate Change movement, he addressed the UN community and the world. Standing at the podium, he advocated for the urgent need to mobilize people, industries, and organizations to take action against the rising effects of climate change.  In this case, we can agree that DiCaprio exercised a powerful kind of influence, one that is realised through the combined effect of individual influence and organizational influence. Much like Ampai in Thailand and the residents of Montreal, Leonardo DiCaprio appealed here for change. However, he was not acting alone. DiCaprio in this case exercised influence both as an individual and in the name of an organization and a movement.

Encouraging transparency on what is going on behind the scenes in the three examples contributes to better understanding how ideas and narratives emerge, circulate, and influence society. Taken together, the above  scenarios illustrate some of the ways in which the nexus of organizational and individual influence operates on multiple scales involving families, local and global communities and movements, and local, regional, national governments to help generate change. A staggering cacophony of news, voices, stories and ideas compete for our attention on a daily basis. How can one story, one idea, one voice be heard above the rest? The nexus between organizational and individual influence is one tool that organizations employ for their message to soar above other circulating messages. Much like anything else, the effectiveness of this tool depends on a series of factors, including context, resources, networks, and leadership.  Follow us as we examine these factors in our next blog.

Naming the Unnamed

Finally, what should we call this powerful point of influence that resides at the nexus of organizational and individual influence? Take a look at the diagram below. Any ideas on what this point of nexus might be called? Share your ideas with us.

a nexus


Co-written by Charles Lusthaus and Sonia Cancian

For over 30 years, Dr. Charles Lusthaus (@CharlesLusthaus) was a Professor in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education at McGill University. During that time, he taught Educational Management courses in organizational theory and behaviour, strategic management, organizational development, planning, and monitoring and evaluation to over a thousand graduate students. Dr. Lusthaus is also a founding partner of the Universalia Management Group and is reputed for having pioneered an approach to institutional and organizational assessment (IOA). Today, the framework is used by a variety of international bodies including CIDA, IDRC, IDB, IUCN, and ILO. 

Dr. Sonia Cancian is a historian with a large number of publications on gender, family, and emotions in migration studies in Canada, the United States, and Italy. She has taught at Concordia University’s Dept. of History, and is affiliated with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) at McGill University as well as with the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University.

photo credits:  Apex Tribune  / Stocksnap / Andrew Burton/Getty Images/ 

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