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Leadership Power Sources Can Determine Leaders' Impact

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Why are some leaders successful and others not? What determines the different magnitudes of their effects?

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One way to answer this question is to address power derivation. All leaders possess power. Business leaders, military leaders and political leaders…they all wield power of different kinds and amounts. But most leaders don’t spend much time thinking about the sources of their power or how such sources can affect the impact that they make.

The Five Types of Leadership Power

Since the beginning of formal leadership research in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have attempted to reason out a taxonomy of different types of power found in different types of leaders and under different types of circumstances. The original postulate by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959 included five types of power: legitimate, referent, expert, reward, and coercive.

As is the case with most academic theories, not all scholars agree perfectly regarding the details of how to describe power types. Other researchers have expanded or modified the list of power types. For the purposes of this article, though, I will only discuss French and Raven’s original five.

The first type of power is called legitimate power. Legitimate power is the kind of power that is derived by virtue of the authority vested in one’s title within an organization, hierarchy or society.

Perhaps the most intuitive example of a setting in which legitimate power is highly emphasized is the military. In the military, the degree of influence, command and respect that an individual possesses is a direct reflection of that individual’s rank.

Because military institutions in the United States and elsewhere commonly develop cultures where organizational hierarchy is placed front and center, rank begets authority. And extraneous factors that might otherwise be involved are less relevant.

As an example, a colonel is a colonel. Whether or not a colonel is popular, attractive or likeable is far less relevant to the authority of the colonel rank.

This isn’t to say that these other extraneous factors don’t matter at all. However, they take a distant back seat to the military title.

The second type of power is called referent power, and it is perhaps most juxtaposed to the idea of legitimate power. Referent power is the kind of power that a leader derives not from rank or position but from the quality of the relationships that he or she develops with followers.

This power is largely dependent on the personality of the leader. How well-liked are they? How supportive are they?

When followers are in need, does the leader express concern and act caringly? Do followers respect them because of who they are as a person, rather than the authority of their title? In this sense, the fact that a leader has a high degree of referent power says a lot more about the quality of a leader’s character and reputability than does a high degree of legitimate power.

The third type of power is that of expert power. This power is derived by virtue of the expertise that someone possesses in the field within which one works or studies.

Classic examples of expert power can be found in places such as law firms and hospitals. Attorneys wield a heavy degree of power and influence over paralegals and support staff, because when it comes to the nature of the legal work being done, they are presumed to know best. Likewise, doctors direct the work of nurses and medical staff responsible for patient care, because their knowledge, skills, and training typically far exceed those of their subordinates.

French and Raven also included reward power and coercive power — the ability to manipulate follower behavior through offering rewards or threatening punishments, respectively — in their original taxonomy. However, the first three — legitimate power, referent power and expert power — are distinct from the last two types of power.

Legitimate, referent and expert power are unique to the individual and not easily changed by a leader. But reward and coercive power are the products of tactics that can be employed by virtually any leader with the resources available to do so, notwithstanding other dynamics. For example, a leader doesn’t necessarily need to be intelligent, well-liked, or revered in order to effectively incentivize employees with commissions for making sales quotas or penalties for failure to clock in on time.

Reward power and coercive power are real types of leadership power. However, they are more like strategies that leaders may use as a means to influence followers through adoption of a transactional leadership approach.

Leader Impact and the Different Types of Leadership Power

But how do different types of power limit leader impact? Legitimate power can be an effective tool to maintain order in a rigid system of authority such as the military, but a drawback is that this kind of power does not require a leader to make any effort to earn the authority he or she wields.

It’s certainly true that status or rank is sometimes bestowed upon leaders because they’ve proven through their prior actions that they deserve it. But in other cases, legitimate power is given to a leader without merit, such as in the case of military appointments made for purely political reasons.

So aside from the effort required (if any) to acquire the rank or position, there is no incentive for leaders wielding legitimate power to worry about respect or voluntary support from followers. It is automatically assumed that respect and voluntary support would follow from their titles.

Consequently, legitimate power can sometimes lead to abuse of power. This is also, incidentally, the catalyst of many revolutions in history.

The kings and queens of old were all heirs to legitimate power structures. Ruling authority was passed through a bloodline without any expectation from each subsequent descendant that they earn the right to rule. The relative absence of monarchies in modern times is a reflection of what commonly happens when legitimate power — without something more, such as a coincident referent or expert power dynamic — reaches its ultimate conclusion.

Referent power, on the other hand, requires the exact opposite: a focus on relationships. And as such, leaders relying on referent power are much more powerfully motivated to act in the best interests of followers at all times. These leaders tend to preserve strong loyalty, cohesion and support among followers, because they are forced to actively maintain these interconnections.

However, leaders who rely on referent power fail when they neglect their relationships with supporters. Such is the case in democracies the world over. Politicians who ignore their constituencies are seldom re-elected.

Finally, expert power can be an effective and lasting source of power. Most people are happy to trust experts where their areas of expertise are relevant, especially when the stakes are high.

However, it is important that leaders with expert power not use their intellectual knowledge, skills and abilities to exploit followers for personal gain. Experts are also perpetually at risk of sabotaging any referent power to which they might otherwise have access, by exuding a sense of superiority and alienating followers. Hubris and egotism can easily undermine expert value.

On the other hand, expert power is also the most susceptible to being faked by a leader wherever a convincing ruse is capable of fooling unwitting followers. Finally, it is also interesting to note that people tend not to trust moral expertise in the same way that we trust technical expertise.

Which Type of Leadership Power Is Superior?

There is no convincing argument to be made about the superiority of any of these types of power in every situation. Instead, they may each be utilized with constructive finesse or destructive clumsiness, depending on the individual leader and the circumstances surrounding his or her leadership. However, if leaders take the time to study and reflect on these leadership power sources, they might avoid catastrophe and steer a safer course for themselves and their supporters.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. 

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