Intro. to Leader Power

Author(s): Brandy A. Brown, Ph.D., Laura G. Lunsford, Ph.D. & Christina Kalel

Originally posted: March 15, 2016

Myths About Leadership

Leadership is one of the least understood concepts (despite the fact that it is part of all cultures and civilizations), and there are many damaging myths associated with it. Let’s explore one more of these myths before we really get into the concept of Leader Power.

Myth: Leadership = having power over others

Fact: Leaders can have power, and leadership itself is a form of power BUT it is not power over people. Instead, it is a power that exists as a function of a relationship between leaders and followers (Forsyth, 2009).

This is one of the most damaging myths and causes some people to have immediate negative reactions to the idea and concept of leadership. Leadership does not have to involve domination, manipulation or coercion (though it can).

In 1959, French and Raven, two social psychologists, identified 5 sources of leader power which still apply today. These bases can help us answer questions we have about different leaders and how the leadership triangle forms when they are involved.

Expert power refers to the amount of knowledge possessed by the leader relative to other group members. Consider the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan (March, 2011). Experts on nuclear energy were consulted on how to prevent or lessen the effects of this nuclear disaster. The scientists had no formal power, but they had a great deal of influence because they had expert power. In this situation a scientist who knows a lot about nuclear power possesses expert power.

Referent power refers to the influence of leader has because he or she is admired or respected by others. Consider a professor that you like and admire. You are more likely to respond positively to advice to requests from this professor and from a professor who you do not like or admire. The stronger the relationship, the more referent power there is. It takes time to develop referent power.

Legitimate power is the official, or formal, authority of the leader. It refers to the person's organizational role. While your boss cannot physically force you to come to work, they have the authority to assign you particular projects, and you allow them to do so based on their legitimate power. Your boss may also utilize reward and coercive power, but you’ll read about those in a minute. Another example of legitimate power would be how athletes typically attend practice when it is scheduled by their coach. They trust their coach to prepare them for the games based on the legitimate power of the coach, whoever it may be, because he was hired by their organization.

Reward power refers to the leader's control over resources and ability to distribute those resources. For example, a boss can give raises or a coach decides which players get to start the game.

Coercive power is the opposite of reward power. This kind of power refers to the leader's ability to deliver punishments, deny positive outcomes or limit access to resources. For example, the Highway Patrol has coercive power because it can give tickets to drivers for exceeding the speed limit. Another example is a boss who can fire lazy employees.

For another way to look at this, try these graphics put together by a blogger with a passion for risk management.

Jaspal, S. (2013, August 30). Impact of Power Styles on Organization Risks. Retrieved from Sonia Jaspal's RiskBoard:

According to Patrick J. Montana and Bruce H. Charnov, the ability to attain powers is what enables leaders to influence followers (by controlling resources they have sourced from the environment). Ok, that sounds confusing. Let’s see if this diagram helps.

Charisma power is mainly gained by being likeable and charismatic. Through these traits leaders gain a positive interpersonal influence on others.

Information power is somewhat like expert power, but can expire (where expert power rarely does). This power is gained by a person when they have possession of important information at an important time when it is needed. Blackmail is a negative example of someone utilizing this power, while someone performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking person in a restaurant is a positive example of informational power with a very short expiration time.

Images by the author and by Nothing Ahead from Pexels


I've tried to keep these in order of reference in the post above vs. in the accepted alphabetical format to make finding one you need potentially easier.

Forsyth. (2009). Group dynamics (5th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

French, J. R., & Raven, B. (2001). The bases of social power. Modern classics of leadership, 2, 309-326.

Jaspal, S. (2013, August 30). Impact of Power Styles on Organization Risks. Retrieved from Sonia Jaspal's RiskBoard:

Montana, P. J., & Charnov, B. H. (2008). Leadership: Theory and Practice. In P. J. Montana, & B. H. Charnov, Management (p. 253). Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series, Inc. Retrieved from