The 5 Types of Power in Leadership

Perspectives
Sep 22, 2020
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< 1 Min Read
Business woman leans over table in boardroom and smiles at colleagues.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August, 2011 and was updated September, 2020. 

It’s a cliché we’ve all heard before: with great power comes great responsibility.  

But in times of disruption and uncertaintythose with power are faced with more responsibility than ever before. Leaders are tasked with giving directions without the help of a roadmap, and the decisions they make not only effect the success of the business but also impact the safety and well-being of their employees.  

Progressive leaders understand the weight of this responsibility, but also see it as an opportunity to innovate and grow.  

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Channeling Power into Progress 

Driving cultural change and organizational transformation is now a priority for businesses that were heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve realized that for their company to survive  let alone thrive – they need to be agile in their operations and prepared for any future disruption. Adding this necessary agility is a process that starts from the top, but many leaders are finding that they aren’t sure where to start.  

There’s no tried-and-true approach for how to respond to a pandemic, especially when its impact differs so greatly from company to company, industry to industry. As a result, many business leaders are going back to the basics in hopes of understanding their sphere of influence and how they can best utilize it to drive positive change in their company’s culture  

The hope is that by understanding power dynamics and how these dynamics affect others will uncover insights about what type of leadership a company currently has, and if that type of leadership is truly what the company needs. 

The five bases of power were identified by John French and Bertram Raven in the early 1960’s through a study they had conducted on power in leadership roles. The study showed how different types of power affected one’s leadership ability and success in a leadership role. 

The five types of power are divided in two categories: 

Formal Power 

1. Coercive

Coercive power is conveyed through fear of losing one’s job, being demoted, receiving a poor performance review, having prime projects taken away, etc. This power is obtained through threatening others. For example, the VP of Sales who threatens sales folks to meet their goals or get replaced. 

This type of power can be used to set high expectations for employee performance. Leaders can use coercive power to establish innovation as part of their employee’s responsibilities – if people aren’t able to come up with new and inventive ways of doing things, then they might get replaced with someone who can provide that value. 

2. Reward

Reward power is conveyed through rewarding individuals for compliance with one’s wishes. This may be done through giving bonuses, raises, a promotion, extra time off from work, etc. For example, the supervisor who provides employees comp time when they meet an objective she sets for a project. 

This is all about positive reinforcement and can work to really incentivize people while on the job. The draw of a reward – whether big or small – can foster creativity, healthy competition, and excitement across your team. Even if it isn’t realistic to offer rewards all the time, the energy reward power can generate will encourage cultural change that sticks even after the fact.  

3. Legitimate

Legitimate power comes from having a position of power in an organization, such as being the boss or a key member of a leadership team. This power comes when employees in the organization recognize the authority of the individual. For example, the CEO who determines the overall direction of the company and the resource needs of the company. 

Driving cultural change with legitimate power means leading by example. If you want your employees to prioritize things like innovation, automation, or building out digital capabilities, demonstrate the importance by communicating the why  — why it aligns to with business goals, why it is the right move for the company, and why employees have the power to make a difference – and back your words up with the resources and support teams need to succeed 

Personal Power 

4. Expert

Expert power comes from one’s experiences, skills or knowledge. As we gain experience in particular areas, and become thought leaders in those areas, we begin to gather expert power that can be utilized to get others to help us meet our goals. For example, the Project Manager who is an expert at solving particularly challenging problems to ensure a project stays on track. 

With expertise comes respect. People are more likely to trust your insights and follow your lead if they know that you have a wealth of knowledge in a relevant field. For leaders who model expert power, they can drive organization-wide cultural change by encouraging others to become experts, too. This could look like practicing knowledge-sharing throughout the company, so people can access a single-source of truth to inspire and inform their innovation efforts. This could also look like using your expertise to provide training opportunities for new and useful skills 

5. Referent

Referent power comes from being trusted and respected.  We can gain referent power when others trust what we do and respect us for how we handle situations. For example, the Human Resource Associate who is known for ensuring employees are treated fairly and coming to the rescue of those who are not. 

You can hope that your efforts to be a leader to your company — whether through a successful business quarter or a successful digital transformation — will result in referent power. If you have referent power, it means you have already made progress towards changing your organizational culture. And with each successful project, this reference will only grow, encouraging your employees to take bigger, smarter risks and keep moving forward.  

Leading Teams Through Transformation 

We live in the age of agility, meaning that businesses either must adapt or fall behind. You can change your processes, upgrade your tech, and increase your market visibility as much as your like, but if these changes aren’t backed up by the people at your company, your efforts will inevitably fall short.  

It’s up to leaders to make sure that their organizations can keep up with these changes by driving cultural transformation alongside all other transformation efforts. This is best done by strong leadership who aren’t afraid of using their power for the good of the company and who care about empowering employees across the business to grow and innovate 

Being cognizant of how leadership’s power effects their employees is a great first step but needs to be followed with a commitment to change. And for this change to make the biggest impact, it needs to involve each and every employee in your company.  

Learn how leaders can empower their teams to drive business success with a dual-track approach to transformation.
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