The Leadership Power Struggle: Part One

Leadership Power Struggle: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Power corrupts.” Lord Acton

“Leadership is not about your job title,” a supervisor told me long ago when I complained about my lowly rank in the company. “It’s about power.”

Unfortunately, too many leaders think like my former boss. They recognize power as an effective way to influence how others behave. Therefore, they believe the more power they have to wield, the greater the likelihood that followers will meet their demands. And in a sense, they’re right.

Power: Good or Evil?

Power is not inherently bad. But as we know, it can be abused. Hell confines history’s evil leaders who used their power to oppress, persecute, or massacre innocent people. Likewise, our minimum-security prisons house a growing number of ousted corporate chieftains who misused their powerful positions for ill-gotten financial gains. And companies everywhere tolerate managers who mishandle their authority. It’s no wonder, then, that the word power has such a negative connotation.

As a leader, you can choose how to use your power. Exercise it properly, and people will willingly follow you. Abuse it, intentionally or not, and they’ll consider you unethical.

To be sure, knowing how to handle power is a challenge for many leaders.

Hence, this is the first of a three-part feature on power. Starting with this installment, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about power:

  • The forms and types of power
  • The ways in which some leaders misuse their power
  • The best kind of power to have and how to get it.

So let’s get started.


What is Power?

Power is defined as the capacity a person has to influence the behavior of someone else—in such a way that the other person does something he or she might not otherwise do.

In this regard, power sounds a lot like leadership. But power involves dependency. The greater someone’s dependence on a resource you control, for example, the more power you have over that person. Assuming, of course, that anyone wants the resources you possess.

Power comes in two varieties: formal and personal. Formal power is attached to a leader’s position or title, whereas personal power comes from an individual’s expertise and reputation. Here’s how to recognize the differences.

Types of Formal Power

Legitimate Power

is derived by a leader’s position within the organization’s hierarchy. Your elementary school principal held legitimate power over you when you were seven years old, much as your company’s CEO does today. Legitimate power is limited to the leader’s rightful realm; however much he or she might try to influence your behavior outside of work, your boss’s legitimate power over you stops at the door.

Coercive Power

is based on fear; specifically, concern about the punishments associated with not complying with a leader’s wishes. For example, formal authority gives a leader the power to reprimand workers, assign them unpleasant duties, reduce their wages, or even fire them. Coercive leaders know that you know they have that power, and so they use it to bully you into meeting their demands.

On the other hand, reward power comes from a leader’s ability to incentivize desirable behavior. Bucking for a raise, a promotion, or that interesting assignment? Doing what your leader asks could ensure your success.

Simply put, while coercive power is the stick, reward power is the carrot.

As the adage says, knowledge is power—and the ability to control knowledge gives leaders information power. Leaders who possess data or know-how that employees need can choose to share or hoard that information. There’s that dependency factor, again!

Types of Personal Power

Regardless of your position or authority level, expert power could give you significant influence over other people. Expert power comes from your unique knowledge or skill that someone else needs. Your heart surgeon, who knows how to reroute arteries when one gets clogged, has expert power. The company’s IT geek might be three job grades lower than you but still holds expert power—at least when your computer doesn’t work.

When employees respect, admire, or trust a leader, they award that leader referent power. Leaders who command referent power are role models who workers revere and appreciate.

An extension of referent power is charismatic power that sometimes stems from a leader’s engaging personality.

So there you have descriptions of the various types of power. Clearly, some forms are more susceptible to abuse than others. In the hands of ill-intentioned leaders, legitimate and coercive power can be especially dangerous. But of course misuse of any kind of power destroys your credibility. In the next installment, we’ll look at the ways leaders abuse their power—and the consequences of doing so.

In the meantime, remember that your job as a leader involves influencing others. It’s the way you influence people that determines how powerful you really are.

Leadership Power Struggle: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Bookmark The Leadership Power Struggle: Part One

George Brymer is author of Vital Integrities and the creator of The Leading from the Heart Workshop®.
Reach out to him at

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4 responses to “The Leadership Power Struggle: Part One

  1. Interesting and relevant post. Thanks George.
    As I was reading, I started to wonder about the use of apparent reward power as coercive power in reality.
    An example that came to mind is the bonus reward system in investment banking. Here, the carrot often becomes the stick; chasing employee performance according to my own experience.
    I would love to hear your views on this in the future posts.


  2. Hermien, I agree with your “the carrot often becomes the stick” viewpoint. I, too, have seen that occur, and the results are ugly. I’ll try to touch on it in an upcoming post.


  3. Pingback: The Power Struggle: Part Two « Linked 2 Leadership·

  4. Pingback: The Power Struggle: Part Three « Linked 2 Leadership·

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