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What does it take to be an influencer?

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

What does it take to be an influencer — someone who can move millions of people by their words or deeds? What’s really inside these people, and what can we learn from them?

Even though we come into some sort of contact with Influencers every day (LeBron James or Pope Benedict, anyone?) these are not easy questions to answer. Clearly, passion, vision, charisma, and never mind being in the right place at the right time, have much to do with the makeup of these folks.

You hear a lot about Influencers these days, mostly in the context of social media stars making millions of dollars simply by being fabulous. But of course, having influence has a much older and more substantive context. If, in essence, influencers are people whose words and actions cause others to follow suit, then such individuals have been around since the origin of our species. Maybe the first influencer was the person who could best knap flint or most accurately throw a spear a million years ago.

In the world of business, influencers who come to mind are Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and Thomas Edison, and deservedly so. But I also encourage you to think beyond those names and consider the likes Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, or Mubarak Muyika, a 24-year-old Kenyan who turned down Harvard to run his own software company in Silicon Valley. And then there are the likes of Oprah, Roger Federer, and Huda Kattan. Have you heard of Kattan? The native of Oklahoma City is one of the most influential beauty bloggers in the world, with 29.5 million followers on Instagram.

When thinking about influencers and influence, it’s important to consider those who hold sway over millions and maybe even billions outside of our own perspectives and orbit. (I sometimes think the notion the world is getting smaller is less true than we think.)

We’ve been trying to understand the power of influence for centuries. Machiavelli was certainly interested in the topic. And more recently, consider Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” with more than 15 million copies sold since it was first published in 1936 and graces multiple lists of — you guessed it — the most influential books of all time. Though the book has its detractors, of course: The writer Sinclair Lewis described Carnegie's method as teaching people to "smile and bob and pretend to be interested in other people's hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them.” And some may find its ideas axiomatic: “Give honest and sincere appreciation” and “Smile,’ for example.

But apparently Carnegie helped at least one of today’s influencers become that much more, well, influential. Buffett proudly keeps a framed diploma of the Dale Carnegie course he completed when he was 20 years old. I remember him telling me how much the course helped him communicate with people.

To be sure one can study and gain influence, but authentic influence isn’t learned but comes from within. It’s almost certain that Buffett would still be the most influential investor of the modern era even if he hadn’t taken that Dale Carnegie course — maybe not quite so avuncular, but the “Oracle of Omaha” nonetheless. True influencers don’t necessarily set out to be influential, they are driven by an inner fire. They follow their bliss — as the mythologist (and influencer) Joseph Campbell would say — and then people simply follow them. Personal ambition is not the primary driver here (See “Gandhi, Mahatma.”). Ambition may get you married to the president’s daughter, but it won’t make you Nelson Mandela.

Indeed, an influencer makes people change the way they think or act through implicit leadership, think Muhammad Ali or Muhammad Yunis. They can also be tastemakers or leaders in design or art or even in defining mores — think Martha Stewart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Andy Warhol or Helen Gurley Brown. They defined their own categories and career trajectories, and they lived their lives in new and different ways.

What I’m looking to do is simple: Find influencers and interview them to get at the particulars of their journeys. How did they figure out what to do? What drives them? How do they channel their energy? Allocate their time and resources?

The result of all this may be a bit more complicated. I hope to leave you with a better understanding of our world and maybe even lead you to change your own journey — or to set out on an entirely new one.

On Thursday, January 10, Yahoo Finance premieres its new weekly interview series, “Influencers with Andy Serwer.” Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer will sit down with some of the biggest names in business, politics, entertainment, sports, and academia. “Influencers” will focus on industry trends, the macro economy and the big picture through a business lens. Tune in every Thursday at 5 PM EST for a new, live episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer.”