Everyone leads differently. But all leadership involves power. Leaders use their power to engage others and inspire them to action. It’s important, therefore, for leaders to understand the many types of power available to them. Power doesn’t necessarily stem from a title or role. The best leaders, whether they have legitimate power or not, understand how to use power to influence others and bring about the results they desire.
Just as every employee brings their own skills and talents to a company, every executive brings their own leadership style to the table. No matter how they run a team, each leader exhibits at least one of these types of leadership power.
1. Legitimate Power
Legitimate power is the type of power a manager, executive or another leading official in a company has due to the status of their position. Written into the job description, legitimate power comes along with the role. You can’t take it with you when you change jobs or retire.
But here’s the interesting thing: Although a follower may have the obligation to comply with legitimate power, this power is also dependent on the follower’s acceptance. Of course, if employees are noncompliant, there are mechanisms available to the leader to, for example, punish behaviors.
Legitimate power also includes informal rules of conduct. For example, it may not be written into the job description that your boss’s boss can summon you to a meeting. But if that happens, the informal rules of conduct would suggest that it’s in your best interest to comply with this display of legitimate power.
2. Referent Power
Leaders who influence others through referent power have gained the respect and admiration of the people around them. Some place Steve Jobs in this category. Admittedly, others paint him as a “purple-faced tyrant.” However, the 95% approval rating he earned during his lifetime says otherwise. Foot-stomping tantrums aside, leaders with referent power generally have strong interpersonal relationships. They leverage these relationships to create an environment of collaboration and cooperation. Referent power is not formal; it must be earned. However, of course, many referent leaders are in positions of tremendous authority. Typically, the people who work for and with reverent leaders trust them, aspire to be like them, and feel empowered by their example.
Referent leaders perform well and deliver results even in the most difficult environments. It’s the type of leadership style that serves every situation. But, since it’s based on credibility and a track record of performance, it’s also the type of power that can take years to establish.
3. Information Power
One gains information power when they know something other people don’t. Information power, however, is short-term and does little to build credibility. Once you release the information, you are no longer needed. So what’s the point? Information power is best used to build influence among followers. Even when you have no legitimate power, you can use information power.
But in order to benefit from information power, you must share what you know with the intention of furthering your group’s objectives. Further, you can maintain information power through the cultivation of credible sources to gain additional information. Your sources can come from reading, attending classes and conferences, reading blogs and online sources, or conversation with others.
4. Expert Power
People who have more knowledge or experience than other members of their team exhibit expert power. For example, when it comes to social media, a recent college grad who spends all of their spare time posting online has expert power over a tenured 20-year employee who has never used Twitter. Expert power is particularly important when the knowledge that you have is perceived as valuable. Like information power, expert power gives you influence.
Expert power can be transient. When others need what you have, you’re the expert. The best way to protect expert power is to continue to build it. You can accomplish this in much the same way as you build information power: by continuing to pursue knowledge.
With expert power, it’s important to let others know that you have it. Be sure to use your expertise appropriately, however. Avoid projecting arrogance or a know-it-all attitude. Continue to value the opinions of others. Promote your expertise in discrete ways. Write articles and blog posts, display your degree or certification in your office, or speak at industry events. In this way, others will begin to recognize your expertise.
5. Reward Power
A leader who has the ability to reward an employee or team member for compliance has reward power. Rewards work best when they are appealing to all participants, for example, a raise or bonus, a promotion, time off or other perks. Typically this positive reinforcement is given for meeting a pre-defined objective.
Be careful, however, of the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality. It can be counterproductive to reward people simply for doing their job. For example, coming to work is generally a job requirement. When you reward expected behavior, you’re setting the bar too low.
Some rewards work better than others. Look for reward ideas that deepen the connection employees feel with the company, its leaders and the work they perform. Money may not be the answer. Consider rewards such as work-from-home days, a plum assignment or even cross-training. Remember that what motivates one employee may fall flat for another.
6. Coercive Power
Coercion uses the power of fear — fear of losing one’s job or missing out on a raise or bonus. The very idea of coercion is anathema to many leaders. But coercive power can be both direct and indirect. Direct coercive power is explicit and deliberate. Indirect coercive power, however, is assumed. Employees may believe they will be punished, for example by having a bonus withheld, if they report unsafe conditions in the workplace.
At the end of the day, leaders can force compliance. It should be the last resort, however. Coercive power may underlie a toxic and unproductive work environment when overused. Employees are happier and more productive when they exercise free will and comply because they want to, not because they have to.
There are of course certain zero-tolerance situations, for example sexual harassment or discrimination, where decisive action is required. In these cases, a leader may use coercive power to protect the company as well as other employees from ongoing harm.
7. Charismatic Power
Similarly, charismatic leaders have the ability to influence others. While they may or may not have any actual authority, charismatic leaders usually have a natural ability to persuade or inspire. Charisma relies on charm and personal qualities that others find attractive. Charismatic leaders exude personal warmth and a zest for life that is contagious.
It may seem that charisma is one of those traits that is inherent. But behavioral scientists have long reported that charisma is a set of skills that can be learned. That’s good news for those who want to lead yet lack the position, the connections and the expertise to do so.
Charisma is an invaluable asset. Of course, you still need to acquire technical expertise and, perhaps, actual authority. But charismatic power can work in any context. Leaders can begin to enhance their charismatic power by learning to tell stories, engaging others and by demonstrating integrity.
8. Moral Power
A leader who has moral power is one that inspires action based on a strongly held set of values and beliefs. Moral leaders not only talk the talk, they also walk the walk. When you are a moral leader, you strive to do what you say you will do. They are strongly principled and hold themselves to a high standard. They want others to follow their example and so they are willing to show them the way. However, leadership is not about them. It’s about being in service to others.
Employees may be exceedingly loyal to the moral leader because they want to emulate their beliefs and actions. They respect moral power because it is consistent and trustworthy. Moral power is not born of coercion; rather it stems from a deep and abiding sense of respect.
Moral power is based on values. These values may include, for instance, integrity, community, fairness, service and respect, among others. The biggest challenge for moral leadership is that moral standards may differ between individuals, religions, culture and, certainly, organizations.
Get the Power
There are, of course, other types of power not listed here. The point is that anyone can hold power and use it to influence others. One size does not fit all. By recognizing the different types of power and further honing your own capabilities, you will become a stronger leader with the ability to develop these skills in others as well.
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This post was updated for clarity in August 2021