Where do you get your power as a leader?
My favorite definition of leadership, which has been widely attributed, is “the ability to get others (to want) to do what you think needs to be done.” I inserted the parenthesis, because the best leaders inspire us to be committed to a particular course of action – not just do it.
In organizations, there are many ways leader are empowered. Most draw their power from more than one source. Here are a few of the most common:
Legitimate power: leaders can derive some (or all) of their power simply from the position they hold in the organization, which gives them the authority to make decisions and choose actions on their own. A director has more “legitimate” power than a manager, who in turn has more than a supervisor, who in turn has more than a lead, and so on. While legitimate power is, by definition, legitimate, it is a weak leader who leads simply from his or her authority. It’s usually not enough to create committed followers. Leaders who fall back on their legitimate power will hear themselves saying, “Why do you have to do it? Because I said so, that’s why!”
Expert power: Some people have leadership power because they possess an expertise or skill that others do not have. If you choose to climb a mountain, for instance, you will want to find a guide who’s been there, and done that. He or she will have an enormous power source based on their experience, and you will willingly follow their lead based on your confidence in their competence.
Coercive power: A leader can derive power from his or her ability to deliver a negative sanction, or to make people fearful. When I’m pulled over by a traffic cop, he (or she) has lots of power, and yes, I’m afraid to challenge it. A leader in an organization can get results by making people afraid of the consequences if they don’t produce. That said, this is a short-term strategy and is widely understood to be ineffective in the long run.
Reward power: On the other hand, people willingly follow leaders who have the ability to deliver rewards, both extrinsic (promotions, salary increases, bonuses, public recognition, etc.) and intrinsic (making people feel better about themselves. What leaders who use reward power understand is that “what gets rewarded gets repeated.”
Information power: Some people are leaders because they have information that others want to have (or they have access to it). Information is power, and the laws of supply and demand work here as well. The more highly regarded the information is, the more power the owner of that information can be, because he or she can decide who gets to have that information.
Connective power: As the saying goes, it’s not who you are, but who you know. Leaders can create power based on their relationships with others. The administrative assistant to the CEO can (and often does) have enormous power, because he or she is the person who acts as the gatekeeper for the CEO. No one gets access to the CEO without going through the administrative assistant. Likewise the Chief of Staff, the Assistant Director, and so on. The risk for people who build power based stemming from their connection is obvious, however. If the person to whom they’re connected leaves – there goes their source of power!
Referent power: Last, and perhaps most important, is the leader’s own personality and skill as a visionary and communicator. Great leaders always have a referent power base – we want to follow them because of who they are. Sometimes we identify this as their charisma, and then make the mistake of believing that leadership is something one is born with. But I believe Warren Bennis had it right when he said, “Charisma is the result of effective leadership, not the other way around.”
If you want to take your leadership practice to the next level, focus on ways to increase your referent power. Keep this thought in mind: “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.” – A women when asked her impression of the two English statesmen Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone after dining with them.