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The Six Types of Power for Leaders

By John Prescott, Director IT Infrastructure, Unified Physician Management

To be an effective leader is to understand how to wield power and what it means when you do so. Being a leader is more than managing employees and tasks. Leadership is a skill. That skill requires both knowledge and practice to make it effective. The use of power is one of many tools at a leader’s disposal. Power, itself, is neither good nor bad as it is the wielder that determines if power is used to serve or to undermine a company’s goals. Power is much more than simple confidence. It is a necessary tool for enacting change within your sphere of influence. If used effectively, the use of power will gain respect and achieve results. If used improperly, the misuse of power can hamstring an organization and lead to stagnation.

"To Be An Effective Leader Is To Understand How To Wield Power And What It Means When You Do So"

In the late 1950’s, John French and Bertram Raven published “The bases of social power” which included five distinct types of power. They later added a sixth. All six of these types of power are part of the fundamental knowledge that all leaders must possess to be effective. Each of us have power and each of us have the power to choose how our power is used. Knowing what the types of power are and how they can be used (or misused) is important to our ability to make decisions that affect both our sphere of influence and our personal core values. Let us explore in detail the six types of power in order from least effective to most effective.

Coercive Power

Coercive Power is often the least effective but most employed (and misused) type of power in the corporate world. Coercive Power is forcing someone to do something against their will or setting up “consequences” to employee actions. Coercive leaders rely on threats, bullying, and “or-else” language to “motivate” those that are beneath them. This type of behavior often leads to fear, dissatisfaction, and resentment.

Reward Power

Reward Power is another widely used method in business today. The results of Reward Power are mixed and it is therefore the second weakest form of power.

Reward Power is useful if the reward is perceived as having value. Giving away a gold-star or a gift card may be nice if it is something that is rare, but if over-used the effect may be weakened. Other times, the reward can be taken for granted by the person giving the reward as just compensation for a task when the employee feels that the reward is not enough to compensate for the requested task.

Reward Power can also be used to increase morale. Think of giving a trophy to the highest performer or the team with the lowest number of mistakes. If used well, this type of reward can become a highly sought-after status symbol within your organization.

Legitimate Power

Legitimate Power is used in all organizations. Legitimate Power is the power of position or role. This is the typical “command and control” structure that is employed by the military world.

Legitimate Power acts as a formalized way of ensuring that there is someone to decide (good or bad) and that someone is responsible. Legitimate Power can seem arbitrary and when a person loses or changes positions or roles within a company, this type of power does not move with them. By itself, this power’s ability to persuade and convince others is weak. However, when combined with the next three powers, Legitimate Power can be an excellent first step towards effective leadership.

Referent Power

Referent Power is the “cult of personality”. This is the power and ability for an individual to attract others and to build loyalty within them.

Referent Power is also the power of respect. This can occur through time if a leader is successful and has a proven track-record of success.

Referent Power is also created through the values of the individual. Some folks are born with “IT”. Others study leadership and develop themselves to be able to exercise this form of power effectively.

Informational Power

Informational Power is the newest addition to the types of power by French and Raven. Nonetheless, it is in the top 3 most effective types of power.

Informational Power is the power of having information that another does not have, or, the distribution of information as a means of effecting change. This could be positive or negative propaganda, knowledge of an opponent’s strategy, or detailed information that is used in decision support.

Informational Power is in the possible use of information from persuading “by the numbers” or making up a “statistic” to manipulate opinions.

Informational Power can be used to measure and improve tasks, processes, and strategies.

Expert Power

Closely related to Informational Power, Expert Power is when an individual possesses in-depth information, knowledge, or expertise in the area that they are responsible for. This is the Software Architect, the Lead Engineer, the CFO, CTO, Doctor, or other highly skilled and highly trained employee. Because the person has this elevated level of expertise, they can often persuade others to do things for them using trust and respect. This expertise and therefore this type of power is greatly valued in leadership roles.

Excellent leaders seek to use the most effective type of power at the correct time. They also seek others who understand how leadership and vision work to set up a framework for success.

Being familiar with the diverse types of power is an excellent addition to any leader’s skill set. Employing power in conjunction with the values that you and your company ascribe to is the next logical step. A few excellent examples are Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly successful people” (Habits 1 and 2) and John Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” (The Law of Influence and The Law of the Picture).

Founded in 2009, Unified Physician Management provides clients technology solutions for practice management and electronic health records, human resource management, and accounting. The company is based in a Boca Raton, Florida.