What is Referent Power and How do I Get Some?

How can referent power make me a better leader?

Did you know that Nike pays Michael Jordan $50-60 million a year to sell shoes?  Wanna know why?  Two words:  Referent Power.  Take a likeable, successful person, have them endorse a product, and suddenly sales go up.  Why?  Because people identify with that person, maybe want to be like them.

I couln’t tell one basketball shoe from another.  But I recognize Jordan as a succcessful athlete, smart businessman, and a person of good character.  So if I need basketball shoes, everything else being equal, I’m probably going to buy the ones he recommends.  And that is part of the reason why referent power is so strong.  In this post we’ll break down what referent power is, and then show how you can get some, too (but I’m not promising you $50 mil!).

What is Referent Power and How Do I Get Some?

What is Referent Power?

Referent Power is one of the six sources of social power identified by Social Psychologists John R.P. French and Bertram Raven.  I think it is the most powerful of them all, even if the name is kind of funny sounding.  It comes from the idea that the follower sees the leader as a personal frame of reference, someone they want to emulate and be like.  To me, there are two parts to referent power:

Charisma.  A strong referent leader has lots of social capital.  He excels in making others feel comfortable in his presence, he is likable, and he has good people skills

Character.  The leader must be trustworthy and worthy of the respect of others.  People are confident he will walk the talk, act for the good of others, lead by example, and keep his word.

When both these qualities are present, the result is a person that others want to identify with, emulate, and work for and with.  They seek his approval, they choose to follow him.

If the person lacks either the charisma or the character, their referent power is weakened.  A highly charismatic person might be fun to work with for a little while, but once it becomes evident that he is untrustworthy and acts out of selfishness instead of selflessness, trust is lost, people will no longer identify with him.  Notice how quickly the endorsement deals get cancelled when a prominent athlete or star makes a public misstep?  That’s why.

Conversely, someone who is well trusted and respected but lacking the necessary people skills will struggle to bring people together in enjoyable and meaningful ways.

Referent power is a personal power source, so the legitimate leader isn’t the only person on the team who might have some; everyone has it to some degree

How to Get More Referent Power

The good news is that because Referent Power is a personal power, there are things you can do to get more of it.

Charisma.  There’s a great Maya Angelou quote that sums up the idea of charisma:

…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. - Maya Angelou Click To Tweet

Those with great charisma are said to make others feel like they are the most important person in the room.  And when you can do that, people will like and want to follow you.  Here are a few ways you can start to do just that:

Be fully present with whoever you are talking to; give them your full attention
Make direct eye contact
Learn their names and interests; ask about their families
Demonstrate respect for each person as an individual
Be accepting of others; cultivate an environment of acceptance
Celebrate successes of others
Praise others publicly
Do unsolicited favors for people, with no expectation of return
Bring fun and celebration to the work place
Don’t try to impress them; let them impress you

Don't try to impress others; let them impress you. Click To Tweet

Notice – it’s not about you.  It’s about them.  There is a great blog post that goes into greater detail with lots of good tips, suggestions and explanations you might find useful to help turn up the juice on your charisma.

Character is a key part of Referent PowerCharacter.  The other half of the Referent Power equation comes down to trust and integrity.  Author Simon Sinek does a great job talking about this in his recent book, Leaders Eat Last.  In it, he describes the idea of a circle of safety. People on their own are vulnerable to attack or injury, whether it’s in the wild or in the business jungle.  To remain safe they have to be constantly vigilant, which takes a lot of energy.  When they join with others that they trust, they can share the duties of vigilance, watch over each other and sleep confidently.

A person of good character is one that strengthens the circle of safety, someone who earns the trust of others, and puts the needs of the group before his own needs.  There are libraries of books written about this, but it boils down to doing a few simple things well:

Keep promises; don’t promise what you can’t deliver
Own up to errors you made, and fix them
Take more than your share of the blame; give more of the credit
Practice what you preach; set a positive personal example
Be supportive and respectful of others
Defend and back up your people when appropriate
Keep the team informed – show that you trust them
Put the interests of the group ahead of your own self-interest

Good leaders pass the credit, take the blame. Click To Tweet

Referent Power – The Takeaway

Among the six sources of power that French and Raven identify, I think Referent Power is the strongest because it gets to the core of human interaction – trust.

A manager might be able to tell me what to do.  But the person I want to be my leader is the guy that I like and trust to keep his word, who will make the best choices he can for the group, and who has my back.

For that person, I am willing to work long and hard.  Because that’s the sort of person I want to be, too.

Lead on!

Question:  Who in your life can you think of who had strong referent power?  What sorts of things did they do to build it and strengthen it?


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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