Exponential Influence: If you’re the only one leading, you’re doing it wrong

After working with thousands of people over the last 30 years, I’ve come to the unshakable conclusion that everyone can raise the level of their influence. It’s possible, it’s within reach, but first we need to take a cold, hard look at where we stand.


We can put people of influence into three distinct categories: individual stars, limited leaders and exponential leaders. Which are you?

Individual stars are people with great skills, but they don’t develop others. Someone might be a concert violinist, a fantastic power forward, a gifted accountant, a brilliant tech specialist, talented department head or a terrific preacher. Those people have talents I can only dream of (and if it included a plumber or someone with other home repair skills, my wife Jenni would be dreaming of me having these talents), but if they don’t use their platform to help others learn, grow, and succeed, they’re players, not leaders.

Limited leaders have an influence in their own sphere of contacts, but no further. Most business owners can handle about a hundred employees by themselves, and most churches never grow beyond about 125 people because that’s the limit of the leader’s ability to personally connect with every person and each family. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a positive impact on 100 people. That’s wonderful, but it’s a ceiling for a leader’s impact unless he or she learns to develop others as leaders.

Exponential leaders have a vision for multiplication. Each employee in the company or family in the church isn’t an end; it’s a beginning. These leaders invest their time and energy in people who show potential, not only to work or serve well, but to catch the vision to keep multiplying multipliers.

As I explained these categories to a friend, he asked, “But Scott, aren’t some people just wired to lead a smaller number of people? Everyone isn’t a Jeff Bezos!”

He might have thought I was hedging when I answered, “Well, yes and no. Obviously, some people are more gifted than others, are better communicators, are more organized or have more passion for a purpose, but the categories aren’t about the level of talent—they’re about the scope of a person’s vision. I believe every person can become an exponential leader. Every. Single. One.”

We need a clearer picture of our role as leaders. It’s not to fill the seats or sell products; it’s to help the people we touch reach their full potential—and their full potential always has an exponential impact. The problem is that many of us have never seen a picture like this, so we don’t know it’s possible. And even if we believe it’s possible, we don’t know how to make it happen.

We need a different measuring stick.

Our success isn’t defined by people looking to us for answers, but by how wide our sphere of influence has grown so that people look to many more leaders for answers.

Our success isn’t defined by our frenetic busyness, but by the number of people we’ve enlisted, equipped, placed and empowered to have a powerful impact on others.

Our success isn’t defined by people seeing us as Superman or Wonder Woman, but when far more people have respect for those who are several layers below us on the organizational chart.

If it’s all about our success, we’re losing the game, and we’ve missed the point of God’s calling to all believers, no matter what career they follow: to establish His kingdom of love, kindness and truth “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Exponential leaders always have their eyes on a much bigger goal than personal advancement or acclaim.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not demeaning limited leaders in the least. I have the greatest respect for them. They’re often the most compassionate, dedicated people in a community. They serve tirelessly, and they have a profound impact on people. I’m not asking them to add more items to their to-do list. Actually, if they can develop the mentality and the skills of exponential leadership, they can become less harried and hurried because others will share the load with them.


My first job was working with young people in a church while I was in college, and I saw myself as an individual star. I was insecure and terrified that I’d fail, and I compensated by trying to control people so they’d contribute to the success of my ministry. Notice: “my ministry.” I saw them as cogs in my machine. I delegated, but not primarily to develop them. My vision for ministry wasn’t to empower people to be effective leaders and expand the scope of our influence. I just wanted them to make me look good.

One day I had the distinct impression that I should write down how I thought people perceived me. I had heard a pastor ask the question, “If you were to die today, what would people say about you?” I used that question as my jumping off point. I picked up my pen and wrote, “dynamic,” “leader,” “strong,” “gifted,” “passionate” and a few other words. After about the eighth one, I looked at the list and thought, “Cool! That’s exactly the reputation I want.”

At that moment, a question came to mind that I’m pretty sure was from God himself: “Where’s love on your list?”

I looked again at the list, and I thought, I just wrote what I want people to say about me, and what I think a lot of people would say, but love didn’t make the list. There’s something wrong—very wrong—about that.

Instantly, I realized I was trying to project an image of success instead of truly caring for the people God had entrusted to me. I picked up my pen again. I marked through all the words on my list, and I wrote “LOVE” over all the scribbles. At that moment I made a commitment that loving people well would be my vision, my goal, my hope for the rest of my life.

To make it very practical, I’ve made it my goal that in every encounter I want people to walk away from me feeling loved, believed in, encouraged and built up. This, I realized later, is how God has always wanted me to influence people. And much later, I understood that love is both the fuel and the goal of exponential leadership.

I can’t be the kind of leader God wants me to be unless I have their best interests at heart, not mine. From that time until today, when I preach, I’m not speaking so people will appreciate what a wonderful orator I am; I’m speaking so each person grasps the grace of God so deeply that they live to communicate His love to everyone they know. Of course, I want my sermons to be well-crafted and powerful, but the goal of my study isn’t to bring attention to me. This perspective changed me, my motives, my vision for each message, my words and ultimately, my impact.

Multiplication has always been God’s strategy to impart His grace to every corner of the globe—it’s not just a New Testament concept! “Generations” applies to literal generations of families, and it relates to expanding layers of impact. The Scriptures identify God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Genesis 28:14-15), but the generational influence didn’t end there. When the psalmist Asaph recounts the history of God’s people, he explains how truth and grace are to be passed down:

[God] decreed statutes for Jacob

and established the law in Israel,

which he commanded our ancestors

to teach their children,

so the next generation would know them,

even the children yet to be born,

and they in turn would tell their children.

Then they would put their trust in God

and would not forget his deeds

but would keep his commands (Psalm 78:5-7).

When we first see the Apostle Paul in Luke’s history of the early church, he was a destroyer. His passion for God was misguided, and he led the zealous Jewish persecution of believers. Later, though, we see a very different leader. The individual star had become an exponential leader. Everywhere he went, he launched new churches. He appointed elders who led people to lead people.

He spelled it out in his second letter to his protégé, Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). He was telling Timothy to do more than gather individuals around him so they could soak up God’s truth. He wanted Timothy to empower “reliable” and “qualified” people who would multiply their impact on countless others.

We see four generations in this verse! The phenomenal story of the early church shows that Timothy wasn’t the only young leader who adopted Paul’s expansive vision of multiplication.


Leading people is as much about our hearts as our heads and our hands. As leaders, we replicate our vision, behavior, and passion in the lives of those around us, but far too often, we can be driven by pride or fear instead of love. When this happens, we manipulate people instead of motivating them. Do people around us notice the difference? Do we?

Manipulation focuses (primarily or exclusively) on our goals and our reputations. It is fueled by either fear of not measuring up so we’re driven to prove ourselves, or arrogance that we know more than anybody else. We manipulate when we use either a carrot (rewards) or a stick (guilt) to control people. This behavior is often excused as “bold leadership,” but it ultimately results in resentment, not love and loyalty.

Motivation isn’t a hair away from manipulation; it’s the polar opposite. When we motivate, we focus on what’s best for the person, and we empower people. The fuel is love, not fear. We may reward people, but it’s more like a father rewards his child than an employer rewarding an employee. When we motivate people, we tap into what’s best about them and what’s powerful in them. We set them up for success, and we celebrate more about their success than our own because their success is our own.

Like produces like. Some of us manipulate because that’s the only environment we’ve experienced and the only example we’ve seen, and we push this behavior throughout our organizations. Is there any hope for change? Yes, of course. We can learn to treasure people instead of using them, and then they can thrive as exponential leaders as we pour our hearts into them and model outstanding leadership skills.


Moses was a phenomenal man. God had to break him before He could use him—and I’m pretty sure that’s the pattern for all of us. You would think that it was enough of a challenge for Moses to trust God to perform a series of ten miracles so Pharaoh would let the slaves go free, and then to face the prospect of annihilation on the banks of the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s army prepared to attack, but as we’d say in Texas, “He ain’t seen nuthin‘ yet!”

God promised His people a land flowing with milk and honey, but it didn’t happen quickly enough for the people. Only three days after they left the banks of the Red Sea, they were walking in the desert, and they couldn’t find any water. Talk about a leadership challenge!

Moses had to lead two million people through a desert with no water, food, or shelter. Not far into the journey, they were so dissatisfied with Moses’ leadership that they wanted to go back to Egypt to resume their previous employment!

God provided manna from heaven, water from a rock and quail from the skies, but the people still griped about everything. There was one person who tried to do it all, one person who made all the decisions, and one person who represented God to the people, and that person, Moses, was at the end of his rope.

Moses’ father-in-law came for a visit, and he noticed the strain on Moses’ face. First, he praised God for using Moses to deliver His people, but then he offered some advice, recommending that Moses “select capable men from all the people” to help share the load of leading and resolving disputes among the people (see Exodus 18:13-23).

Jethro didn’t walk in and take control. He offered advice, and he told Moses to take his ideas to God and let Him confirm them. I believe we can find four powerful principles in this account:

  1. Recognize that the most gifted leaders, even those who are so obviously called, appointed, and empowered by God, cannot and should not try to fulfill their calling on their own. Top leaders of any organization or department are to provide clear direction and vision.
  2. Identify the key influencers and determine the scope of their leadership. Some have an impact on thousands of people, some on hundreds, some on dozens, and some on a few. It’s your job and mine to notice them, resource them, and place them where they can have the greatest influence.
  3. Teach the influencers everything they need to know, equip them with the skills they need, and position them for success. Invest your heart in them so they learn to walk with God and enjoy the life God has for them instead of just filling a slot on the organizational chart.
  4. You don’t need to have an impact on every person in your organization, but you need to invest your time in those who can have the greatest impact on others.

The pressures and perplexities of leadership weigh on us. No matter how much we work or how well we lead, some will complain that we aren’t doing enough, as the people of Israel did to Moses. It got so bad at one point that Moses wanted God to take him out and end his misery! Have you ever been there? Sure, you have. So have I.

God’s answer wasn’t to take Moses’ leadership card away from him; it was to expand the pool of gifted leaders. In Numbers 11:16-17, God instructed Moses to choose 70 elders and that He would “take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them (see Numbers 11:16-17).

God wasn’t calling the elders to start new movements. He was calling them to support Moses in the calling He had given him. They would be an extension of Moses to the rest of the people, and they would support his leadership, much like Aaron and Hur supported his arms during battle so God’s people would prevail.


Most of the people in our organizations don’t understand the weight their leader carries. They see us serving, loving and leading, and they assume it’s easy. It’s not. Caring is a heavy burden—on our bodies, our families and our hearts. In one way, that’s fine. We don’t want to whine and complain all the time, but you know and I know that we carry weights others just don’t see.

For many of us, the burden is magnified by the feeling that we’re stuck under the limits of our existing team. We can’t imagine building a team of eager, talented, humble and effective leaders whose influence radiates throughout the organization and into the community.

You’re not stuck as a leader. Everything you need to begin is at your fingertips. You simply have a choice to make. Do you want to become an exponential leader? If you do, you can start today.


This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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