Six Power Sources for Leaders: Which ones do You Have?

One of the keys to effective leadership is understanding where your power to lead comes from.  Merely occupying a position with “leader” in the title doesn’t make people want to follow you.  But if you know what does get people’s attention, you will have a much better chance of leading your team to success.  By the end of this post you’ll learn about six leadership power sources, and lots of ways to boost your rating in each one.

power sources

Leadership is a Verb

There a scene from an old Rambo movie that sticks in my mind sometimes.  A couple guys from the local National Guard have Rambo supposedly trapped in mine.  The sergeant tells the other Soldier to go in and get him.  The other guy is having none of that, saying, “you might be the sergeant here, but I’m your boss back at the factory.  I’m not going in there and you can’t make me.”

In a nutshell you can see how someone who is supposedly in charge doesn’t necessarily always have the power he needs to accomplish a task.  The sergeant was in a leadership position, but he clearly lacked the power to get the other guy to go in after Rambo.  Of course that’s asking a lot of anyone…

It’s not unusual for new leaders to experience a similar frustration.  They tend to think that since they have been appointed or elected, everyone must now listen to them and do as they are told.  But they are confusing a leadership position with the actual act of leadership.  The best leadership draws power from several places, and the most effective leaders are the ones who are able to tap into all of them.

Don't confuse a leadership position with the act of #leadership. Click To Tweet

According to social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, there are actually six sources of power that effective leaders can use to help them guide their teams.  Understanding what they are and how you can acquire more of each will make you a better leader quickly.  The first three are all related to the leader’s official position.

Positional Power Sources

1.  Legitimate Power is how the leader got into the position in the first place – whether by election, appointment, hiring, or volunteering. Often the position is accompanied by a formal office or title, a special patch, uniform insignia, or similar overt symbol of authority.  The organization has recognized you as the legitimate holder of a leadership position, and with it come formal authorities and responsibilities.

Oil well pump, one of many power sources, similar to the several sources of leadership powerThere are huge advantages for the leader who occupies a legitimate position of authority.  For one thing, everyone recognizes that you are supposed to be in charge.  Legitimacy also gives you access to networks and resources others may not have. In fact I wrote a whole post about connecting to your leadership network.  But as we have seen, merely occupying a special office, or wearing a sergeant’s stripes is not always enough to get people to chase Rambo into an abandoned mine. Here are 6 Things You Need to Know about Legitimate Power that will keep you out of trouble.

And part of the good news is that, as a legitimate leader, you can officially tap into two other power sources.

2.  Reward Power is the ability to give something of value to someone in exchange for compliance. Most often, people associate this with money or resources that the organization controls through the leader – the reward might be something like a raise, more vacation days, or a holiday bonus.

And while money can be a great short-term incentive, there are actually much more powerful ways to reward than straight up cash.   Recently, I came up with Eight Ways to Reward Without a lot of Cash.

Nuclear power, a source of electrical power similar to the several power sources of leadership3.  Coercive Power is the ability to force compliance, and to punish. Your legitimate position of power may include the authority to fire someone, demote them, deny privileges, or give them low marks on their annual evaluation.

Be careful with this one, though.  Heavy reliance on Coercive Power is a symptom of poor leadership and a toxic working environment that will ultimately make your team weaker instead of stronger.  That’s why we chuckle when we hear the saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”  Coercive power is best used sparingly, and targeted largely at ensuring minimum acceptable standards of behavior.  It’s not a good way to motivate people to excel.  Learn about Nine Ways to Keep Coercive Power from Backfiring.

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Personal Power Sources

The combination of Legitimate, Reward, and Coercive powers makes a potent mixture for someone in an official position of leadership, but it’s not where I think the bulk of the real power comes from.  There are three more power sources that come from the individual, regardless of position – these are Personal Power sources, which means you can improve upon any of them right now, whether or not you are in an official position of leadership.

4.  Expert Power is based on knowledge, special skills, or experience. Often this expertise is formally recognized in some way, such as a medical license, or passing the bar exam as a lawyer.  But you don’t always need a certificate.  When you know more about something than everyone else, you just became the expert.  This includes experience in doing something.

Wind turbines, a source of electrical power, similar to the several power sources of leadershipIn this sense, expert power is one that you can very quickly improve upon.  Hitting the books, talking with experts outside your group, or getting experience on your own somehow are all good approaches.  Learn more about ways to quickly build your expertise, and Six Techniques for  Leading Even When you are NOT the Expert.

5.  Information Power is what you have if you possess knowledge that others need or want. This power is related to your ability to get access to information, and doesn’t require expertise.  It could be knowing when the next meeting is, or knowing the impact of budget cuts at headquarters, or how new trends will impact your business.

Information power is time-sensitive – it can become obsolete quickly.  The power of the information is also gone the moment you give it away, so a key with this power source is to have continuous access to new, useful information that others don’t have.  Learn about Five Ways to get Information Power Working for You.

Lightning strike symbolizing the criticality of referent power among the six leadership power sources

6.  Referent Power is the ability of the leader to influence people because of their attraction to and respect for him. People use him as a “frame of reference” and want to be like him.  Someone who is well-liked, charismatic, and has good people skills can be very attractive to work with.  But this personal appeal has to be coupled with integrity and depth of character to be effective over the long term.

A charismatic person who turns out to be a pathological liar will quickly lose the support of his team.  A person of great character who has difficulty developing relationships with others will also find it hard to lead effectively.  It is the combination of the two aspects – charisma and character – that will make you particularly influential.

Of all the sources of power, I believe referent power is the most critical, because at its core are the ideas of trust and personal appeal.  This is not to say that you should immediately engage in a popularity contest; it’s more about establishing genuine relationships with other people.  When you trust and invest in others, they will do the same with you.  Here is more on Referent Power, including ten ways to increase your charisma and eight ways to improve your character.

What’s Your Leadership Power Source?

To become a more effective leader, the thing to do now is take a look at yourself and see where your power lies.  I’ve put together a power-source self-assessment worksheet for you.  There are 18 statements on it.  Simply rate whether you agree or disagree with each statement using a score of one to five; one is disagree, three is neutral, and five is agree.

The worksheet will tabulate your answers and give you an overall score and color code for each power source.  Follow the links in each of the power source sections to learn more about the ones you want to work on.

Even if you are not filling a legitimate power position, there are always things you can do to become more influential.  Focus on the Personal Power sources to raise your game, and you will find more and more people will be interested in what you have to say.

Most importantly, pick one thing you can do today, right now, that will make you a more powerful leader, and do it!

Pick one thing you can do right now, and do it. Click To Tweet

Lead On!


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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