5 Different Types of Power in Leadership

When you hear the word ‘power,’ what is the first thing that comes to mind? For many people, the answer to that would be ‘control.’

Power is usually held by someone in a position of authority and leadership. With that comes the negative connotation that power enhances a person’s selfishness; making them out of touch with the people they lead.

In reality, power is neither good nor bad, it all depends on how you use it. It is an effective tool that can empower others and bring positive change when used wisely. 

5 types of power in leadership:

  1. Coercive Power
  2. Reward Power
  3. Legitimate Power
  4. Referent Power
  5. Expert Power

Coercive Power

Have you ever felt that your employees or coworkers shudder in fear when you walk into a room? If so, it might mean that you have been only using fear as the main driving force in your leadership.

Many leaders fall into this category, as coercive power is the most common type of power used in the workplace. Leaders who exercise coercive power use fear to get things done. People might disagree with what you ask them to do, but they will do it anyway due to penalties or repercussions. 

In the short term, this type of power may push employees to be more compliant and, in the end, achieve quick results. However, it may lead to an unhappy work environment and a high turnover.

You should only use this type of power only when necessary, and it must be used with caution.

Reward Power

If you want your employees to be motivated, giving them rewards could be an easy way to get them on board with what you aim to achieve. The type of reward could be anything other than financial incentives. It could be a promotion or public praise from you as their leader.

The most effective rewards must be aligned with the personal goals of employees.  For instance, if an employee is working towards a promotion, a bonus or extra vacation days could be offered as an incentive. Alternatively, if an employee has expressed an interest in learning new skills, tuition reimbursement or access to online courses could be provided.

The positive side of rewarding someone is that it is more effective when used appropriately. It can be the extra motivation that an employee needs. A trophy for the best performer in a department would not value much, but it will inspire others to work harder for future recognition.

However, rewards might not be enough to motivate someone indefinitely. When you stop providing rewards, employees and workers may become less motivated to work hard. The motivation from rewards does not address the leading cause of lack of performance. Your power is gone once the prize is given for a finished task, and you have to repeat the cycle again to ensure your employees are performing well.

Related read: 7 Bad Habits That Leaders Should Avoid

Legitimate Power

Any efficient system has different levels of power which creates a sense of order and structure. Legitimate power provides that level of structure and order, as power comes from positions already set within the organization’s ladder. 

Legitimate power ensures that everyone within an organization knows what their tasks are. The higher the position, the greater the responsibilities, while those in lower positions focus on the given job.

This type of power is usually obtained by being appointed or through a vote by people within the organization. However, if there is a position change, power does not move with the person. Instead, it stays in the position and is transferred to a replacement.

There can be successes for leaders that hold legitimate power. It is much easier for them to develop effective strategies as they have better resources that can maximize their success. 

However, there are a number of factors that contribute to effectiveness in leadership such as 

charisma, decisiveness, and the ability to inspire others. A person who has legitimate authority does not necessarily have these qualities. As a result, they often fail when they meet resistance from subordinates or when they abuse their position of power.

Expert Power

When you are an expert in something, you will be sought after. As you gain more experience and knowledge on a subject matter, you will automatically be given new challenges and responsibilities. Your employees will trust you more for your insight. Not only that, but you will also gain their respect.

Expert power goes against the traditional structure of power — leaders are chosen based on knowledge, not seniority. Thus, you should constantly develop your skills and knowledge to remain in a position of power. 

It is not uncommon, however, for someone to find themselves displaced by a newer and more knowledgeable expert. In this case, the expert’s power and authority can be diminished. While this can be frustrating for the expert, it’s important to remember that expertise is always relative. There will always be someone who knows more than you do, no matter how expert you are. 

Referent Power

The type of power that is based on an individual’s qualities and characteristics is called referent power. This means that people will look to you for inspiration and motivation when you are well-liked.

You can turn people into loyal followers, build connections among team members, and promote productivity by having a good personality. Followers will then show their respect by following your way of thinking and behavior.

However, there are some downsides to referent power in leadership. It can be challenging for referent power to impact companies with a solid organizational culture substantially. 

Sometimes, if a company has many layers of hierarchy, it will be hard for the power to reach the bottom. Because of this, building trust needs time and effort to develop among employees.

Related read: 7 Most Common Leadership Styles & When You Should Implement Them

To summarize;

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, with many different types of power at their disposal. It is essential to understand the different types of power to be an effective leader to achieve results.

Coercive and legitimate power uses authority and position to get quick results. Reward power uses financial and non-financial incentives to change behaviors. At the same time, expert and referent power builds respect and connections among peers.

What kind of power are you currently exercising in your leadership?

At Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching®, we are committed to helping leaders improve their behavior and leadership skills. We boast the world’s largest executive coach network with over 4,500 certified coaches around the globe and have improved the leadership effectiveness of Fortune 500 leaders. 

Contact us today and we can help you learn how to use power more positively to become a more effective leader with the help of our world-renowned coaching program.



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