The Top Influencers List 11 Breakout Influencers of 2011

2011 separated the influencers from the persuaders. One by one, once-admired leaders from the athletic office to the corner suite to Wall Street toppled like dominoes. Turns out they lacked influence. Why? Because they misjudged what influence really means.

My list of the “Top Influencers Alive” may surprise you. That’s my point. Despite conventional wisdom, influence and persuasion are not the same animal. After decades of advising top leaders, I’ve concluded that persuasion is a self-centered skill — it’s manipulation fueled by a personal agenda run amok. Influence is a balanced approach to changing hearts, minds and results.

There are three dimensions of a true influencer. How do you measure up?

  • Inner confidence (Influence begins within. You live your values with a defined sense of purpose. You’re courageous and driven by positive resolve, not fear.)
  • Outer presence (Your presence is how you make others feel. People are drawn to you because they sense you have credibility, integrity, likeability and live with congruence.)
  • Compelling communication (You deliver messages that connect with others’ values, convey with portion control to gain clarity, and convince others to commit to action.)

Based upon these three dimensions of true influence, here are my picks of the year’s top influencers:

Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos Quarterback. Tebow’s “flawed mechanics” and wobbly spiral are frequently criticized, but his authentic leadership is not. Tebow-mania has spiked the NFL’s ratings and elevated those around him, stirring his team from the cellar to playoff contention. His unwavering faith and never-say-never resolve have captivated the nation, even spurring new terms such as “Tebowing,” “Tebow-Time,” and “The Mile High Messiah.” Sure, religion polarizes. But Tebow demonstrates that integrity, confidence and humility are an influential combination.

Howard Schultz, Founder and CEO, Starbucks. Like the late Steve Jobs, Schultz returned to rescue the company he founded. The brand he built is once again soaring with record financial results. But Schultz morphed from business leader to social activist when he took a stand on Washington D.C.’s dysfunction. He influenced more than a 140 fellow chief executives to join him in a boycott on campaign contributions to incumbents, saying, “Business leaders cannot be bystanders.” He rouses the troops with his affability and passion for job creation and the economy.

Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Congresswoman. As a politician, Giffords has long fought for her constituents. But it’s her personal fight after a bullet pierced her brain that has influenced the nation. Gifford’s sheer determination and upbeat attitude inspire millions. Due to damage in her language pathways, her vocabulary is limited and she struggles to form sentences, but she makes it crystal clear that she’s committed to rebuilding the connections in her brain and her community. Giffords’ story connects with everyone – inner resolve trumps evil acts.

Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO, Chobani Yogurt. In just a few short years, Ulukaya’s Greek-style yogurt company vaulted from nowhere to everywhere to become the third largest yogurt maker in the market. This modern day dairy king came to the U.S from a Turkish sheep and cow farming family to attend business school, but didn’t finish. Instead, he bought a yogurt plant a competitor was closing and launched Chobani, which means “shepherd.” He’s committed to listening to customers and staying true to the vision to provide nutritious products at fair prices.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO, Amazon. Bezos’ company is on fire with his new product, Kindle Fire. The man with the distinctive laugh took the company from Seattle’s skid row to a gleaming headquarters on Puget Sound where, despite the company’s enormous size, working teams stay small. Bezos masterminded the idea of the “two pizza team.” He has said if you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too big to do amazing work. Part of Amazon’s influence lies in creating consumer demand for additional product sales with personalized recommendations.

Jim Skinner, Vice Chairman and CEO, McDonald’s. McDonald’s has been on a tear since Skinner took over in 2004. Stock appreciation is soaring, same-store sales are rising and the company continues to create jobs in a down economy. It added 62,000 new jobs in its McJob fair earlier this year. Skinner also spearheaded healthier menu choices, including customers the world over who are “lovin’ it.” Smoothies, wraps, parfaits and salads are a hit, let alone the new McCafe coffees, which are giving Starbucks a run for the money.

Oprah Winfrey, Media Mogul. Winfrey made a daring move this year, ending her long running syndicated talk show and launching her OWN cable network. She created a strong bond of trust with her followers by modeling authenticity and openness, without the trap of over-merchandizing herself. Unlike Martha Stewart, Winfrey has kept control of her image. While the new network is struggling in the ratings, she’s launched many successful careers and shows leadership by juggling television, radio, a leadership academy for girls, a magazine and philanthropy.

Liz Strauss, Founder of Successful Blog and CEO, SOBCon. Strauss is a social web strategist and one of the most thoughtful, prolific bloggers on the planet. Her blog posts on leadership and life garner tens of thousands of comments. A teacher and community builder at heart, Strauss is all about interconnectedness, bringing great people and great ideas together. The blogosphere is her classroom, athough she hosts an annual high touch summit where as she says, “the virtual meets concrete” bringing top bloggers together to share their influence.

Warren Buffett, CEO Berkshire Hathaway. The legendary investor from Omaha created a buzz this year by arguing that the rich should pay higher taxes. He wants those who make more than a million dollars a year to pay the same percentage of their income as others in the middle class. Washington latched on, deeming his idea the “Buffett Rule.” As an investor, Buffett moved back into technology, buying more than ten billion in shares of IBM. Others followed suit. Simply put, when Buffet talks, others take action.

John Mackey, Founder and Co-CEO, Whole Foods Market. Mackey launched his first grocery in 1980 and has since grown it into the country’s top natural and organic food vendor. Profits are up more than forty percent this year. He’s a visionary and outspoken leader, unafraid of taking on subjects he’s passionate about such as healthcare. Mackey believes in conscious leadership, and is keenly aware that being the most visible person in an organization is a responsibility. As a result, he has created a high trust organization.

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