Key learning outcomes:

  • Improve your leadership skills.
  • Learn that power and leadership are interrelated.
  • Identify the advantages and disadvantages of exercising reward power.
  • Distinguish between legitimate and coercive power.
  • Recognise referent power and its relationship to expert power.


Power and leadership are closely linked. People tend to follow those with power, and as a result people with power tend to lead. By understanding the different sources of power you can learn how to influence others more effectively and use your power in order to become a more effective leader.

In 1959, John French and Bertram Raven conducted one of the most well-known studies on power. In this study they developed what are now known as ‘French and Raven’s Five Power Sources’. We now explore each in more detail and then look at how they can be applied effectively in life and work.[wlm_ismember]

Reward power

Reward power is a person’s ability to compensate another by way of reward for compliance. The person in power controls rewards such as raises, promotions, project opportunities or even gratitude. This form of power is effective because if others expect or know that you will reward them for doing what you want, there is a greater chance that they will do it. A simple example involves children. Teachers will often put a gold star or sticker on younger children’s work for a job well done, or a reward chart might be used to foster certain behaviour.

There are a number of issues with using the reward power base. The first is that the leader does not always have complete control over the rewards; for example, a manager may need approval from their boss before giving a pay increase or bonus. The second is the inconsistency in the availability of rewards; for example, a dip in income might mean that financial rewards previously distributed are no longer available, even though the level of work required is unchanged. Finally, the rewards might not seem valuable, or over time the reward may be given routinely and no longer considered a reward.

Legitimate power 

Legitimate power comes from the position or office a person holds. If we take the monarchy as an example, a king or queen is in a position of power through their bloodline rather than their ability. Other examples are power inherent in the roles of politicians who are elected to office and jobs such as the police force. Our cultural norms, laws and social hierarchies all provide the base for this type of power.

The issue with this type of power is that if you lose the position or title, you lose the power. The prime minister is only the leader of the government while he or she remains elected by the party and the people. Legitimate power is only effective over those who believe that you have a right to hold that power. For example, the Queen of England has no power outside of the Commonwealth. Likewise a police officer from one state has no jurisdiction in another jurisdiction.

Coercive power

Coercive power is the least desirable form of power and is based on the belief that a person can punish others for non-compliance. This source of power relies on threats and punishment to bring about the desired result or behaviour. An example of coercive power is threatening to fire someone if they do not do what you want them to. This type of power, if used consistently, will generally lead to low morale and dissatisfaction among those you are leading. Coercive power is commonly used in military training when undesirable assignments may be given out for substandard performance or non-compliance.

Expert power

The expert power base is built on a person’s superior skills and knowledge. Leaders with expert power build trust and respect through demonstrating a high level of expertise, by being solution-driven and delivering results. This type of power is earned through performance. It is important to understand that a person can hold a level of expert power but may not necessarily be in a position of leadership. An example would be a long-term employee who holds power within a team through their knowledge and experience rather than their job title.

Referent power

Referent power comes from what is sometimes recognised as charisma or appeal. People will like and respect the person and identify with the person in some way. You will see referent power working with celebrities who can influence their fans or followers in regard to what they might wear or buy or how they behave.

The issue with referent power is that the person does not necessarily have to do anything to earn it. As it is based simply on likeability, someone who is unethical or dishonest can hold power over others and use it for their own personal gain. You can, however, see referent power very successfully combined with expert power in high-profile charismatic leaders such as Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.

Understanding power

You will find many examples in your own life and beyond where power is used both negatively and positively. Think about dictators that have used power to coerce others to perform actions against their will; conversely, there are great leaders such as Martin Luther King who used their referent power to drive change. It is important to understand that if you are in a position of power you have a great deal of responsibility.

Identifying and understanding how you are being influenced will allow you to choose whether or not to accept that power base. Likewise, by understanding the sources of power you hold, you can use your influence more effectively.

You will find the most effective leaders tend to use a combination of expert and referent power. They may use other forms of power on occasion, such as using their title or office to influence others or power to reward to gain a certain outcome, but generally they will earn the right to lead through performance and gain the respect and trust of others.

How to use the theory

Now that you have a better understanding of the sources of power, think about the sources of power you hold and how you use them. Do you always choose the most appropriate source? Could you achieve a better outcome by using a different type of power base? For example, business leaders will often use reward power without understanding that it can become less effective over time. Reward power is best used as a short-term incentive to acknowledge a special effort or achievement.

It is important to remember that being the boss is not always enough to influence all those around you. Legitimate power is most effective when combined with expert and referent power. True leadership is about using your influence and power to help others perform at their best. Being a successful leader takes work and thought to ensure that you take the right approach in a situation and for the right people.

Think about those that hold power over you. Do you sometimes feel that you have been coerced or bullied into something that you did not want to do? The more often you understand and identify the sources of power people exercise over you, the more easily you can develop strategies to reduce their ability to influence you. Even in everyday life you will see friends or family who will try to use a form of legitimate power to force you do something you might not want to do, because it is your duty.

It is important to remember that anyone is capable of exercising power and influence over others. The more you understand power and influence, the better you will be at managing the power others hold over you and the power that you hold over others. Use this knowledge to build your own leadership skills and those of your team.[/wlm_ismember]

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