Legitimate Power: 6 Things You Need to Know

Legitimate Power is the first and most commonly recognized source of power that people think of when they think about where a leader’s power comes from.  But if your leadership is based solely on the fact that you wear a special patch or there’s a certain job title on your office door, you will quickly find yourself in trouble when it comes to getting things done.  In this post we’ll talk about what legitimate power is, but more importantly, six things you need to know about Legitimate Power to become a better leader.

Legitimate Power

The Power of the People

When you showed up for class on the first day of school, and your teacher walked in the door, she brought with her a certain amount of legitimate power.  Legitimate power comes from a person’s formal position within an organization.  As she introduces herself, you recognize that she has certain rights and authorities in her role as teacher, just as you have certain duties as a student.

We need this idea of legitimacy to keep ourselves out of chaos.  Without the position of teacher, who would organize the lessons, give the lectures, grade homework and design the tests?  Organizations establish hierarchies and formal positions to enable them to focus efforts, set and accomplish goals, and maintain order.  Someone in a formal organizational position holds Legitimate power.  There are several aspects to Legitimate Power that are useful to recognize and understand.

  • Hiring/Firing. There are formal methods for installing and removing someone from a legitimate power position.  The American President is elected, and if need be, can be impeached (or at least not re-elected).  In the business world executives are hired, and can be fired or demoted.
  • Specific Authorities. Legitimate Power is specific to the position.  The teacher’s formal authority ends when you walk off school grounds.  She can assign you homework, but can’t tell you when you need to mow the lawn or take out the trash (your parents or spouse may have this authority, though!)
  • Crown symbolizing legitimate powerPower Symbols. Legitimate power positions often have symbols of authority and position so that others in the organization will recognize who they are and behave accordingly.  An obvious example is the military, where rank insignia and uniforms clearly indicate to everyone who is in charge.  You also see formal titles, certain dress codes, and perks like the company car or the corner office.
  • Not Always Leaders. People who are not leaders can still hold positions of legitimate power.  I might work for the General, but I know without a doubt that I will not be able to go on leave if I don’t submit the right paperwork to the Specialist over in Admin.  She has the responsibility and authority to insist that I follow the correct process because he represents the organization.

So It’s Legit; What now?

OK, fine, so we have defined the idea of legitimate power.  Now that you have the appropriate badge of office, can you proceed to lead by walking around, giving orders and saying, “I’m the boss.  Do it because I said so!”  No.  Not really.  Not if you want to stay in that position for very long.

If you’re in a position of legitimate power, congratulations, but now here’s what you need to know.

1.  Leverage your other formal tools. You probably have some formal authorities to reward and punish – maybe you are in charge of some incentive programs, or have to fill out annual performance evaluations on your people.  Think about how you want to use them to get your work done.  Follow these links for some helpful ideas about reward power, and coercive power.

2.  Plug in to your other resources. Depending on your organization, you may have control of things like time, labor, funding, assets or other resources.  You can use your control of these things to focus your team’s efforts on achieving organizational goals.  Make a list of the resources under your influence and think about how you can use them to make your team successful.

3.  Connect with peers and higher leadership. Whatever level you are in the hierarchy, you now have formal access to other leaders at your level and to leaders at least one level up, possibly more.  You can use this access to build your information power, develop insight, and learn from the experience of others.  As you encounter challenges and problems, connect with your peers and find out what they did to resolve them.

4.  Understand what it is: an initial mandate.  All leadership is provisional and subject to vote.  The President may roll into office with a landslide of popular support, but if he fails to perform, his ratings will fall and his ability to lead will fall with them.  In the same way, holding a new Legitimate position is your initial foot in the door.  If it turns out that you don’t know what you are doing or fail to earn the trust of your team and higher leaders, than your power will begin to erode.  You need to work to build and retain their trust in you as a leader.

All #leadership is subject to a vote. Click To Tweet

5.  Recognize the purpose of the perks. It’s not about personal privilege.  The job may come with certain perks, but most of these are designed to help you do your job more effectively, and you should use them that way.  If you have the authority to delegate, it is so that you can lead several efforts at once and can spend more time thinking strategically, not out on the golf course.

6.  Open your mind. Getting into a legitimate power position is a vote of confidence in you by the organization, but it doesn’t mean you suddenly know everything.  In fact, the higher up you go, the less you will know about everything.  So rather than take an authoritarian approach as “The Boss,” you are better off being inquisitive, soliciting input from your experts, and then thinking critically about what you learn.

TakeawayFinal authority for legitimate power depends on consent of the governed

As the American forefathers observed so long ago in the Declaration of Independence, legitimacy of leadership ultimately resides in the consent of the governed.  People may follow you at first because you hold a certain position.  But they will only continue to follow you as a leader if you prove worthy of their trust.  It’s time to get to work!

Read about the other five sources of leadership power here.

Question:  Being put into a position of Legitimate Power is a sign that others trust you; staying there means you have continued to earn that trust.  Agree or disagree?

Add your thoughts in the comment box below.  And if you liked this post, be sure to sign up now for twice-monthly Leadership Updates with more tips and exclusive content not available elsewhere on the site!


French, J. and Raven, B. (1959). The Bases of Social Power. In Studies in Social Power, D. Cartwright, Ed., pp. 150-167. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.



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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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