The 5 Types of Power Revisited

Jul 18, 2012
4 Min Read

I used to think that a leader was powerful if she had a lot of financial responsibility, or if he was directly responsible for a team of hundreds of people.  But, as we first talked about here last summer, there are different types of power, and some may be easier for you to obtain than others.

To briefly recap, in 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five bases of power.

1. Legitimate: a person has been given formal authority to make demands of and expert obedience from others.  The CEO of your company, for example, has legitimate power.

2. Reward: a person is able to compensate another – financially or otherwise – for complying with his her demands.  A parent has reward power over his children.

3. Expert:  a person has the knowledge and skills to outperform others; her good judgment is respected and relied upon.  A specialist physician has expert power.

4. Referent: a person is strongly liked and admired by others and often exerts a charming influence.  A celebrity has referent power.

5. Coercive: a person achieves compliance from others through the threat of punishment.  A military dictator has coercive power.

In today’s business world, the most effective leaders mostly use a mix of expert and referent power, though many have legitimate and reward power as well. And thinking about your own sources of power strategically is important if you want to influence your colleagues, clients, and other constituents in a positive way.

My go-to type of power is expert, because it affords the individual the most control.  You don’t have to wait around to be handed a title (as in legitimate), and you don’t have to rely on fluctuating circumstances (as in referent).  Expert power can be secured purely through hard work on your part.

So what steps should you take?  I alluded to them in a piece last January about positioning yourself as a thought leader in your organization.  To summarize:

Learn Everything

Read as much as you can about your field – way above and beyond what might be expected.  Secure mentors inside and outside your organization who are more seasoned than you.

Build an External Brand

Communicating your ideas in writing and speaking at industry conferences are great ways to organize your own thoughts and cast as wide a net as possible with your expertise.

Be Media Savvy

Meet with a PR person about what you can offer to the press and pitch interview opportunities related to your expertise.  When you’re quoted in a piece or featured in a television, web, or radio interview, share the clips via e-mail and social media.

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