Learning to Handle Leadership Power

Wise leaders understand and obtain power at many levels. While the opening statement may sound Machiavellian, power is necessary to influence others. Leaders need power to accomplish tasks that grow and improve the organization. Leaders set agendas. Without power, organizations deteriorate or cease to exist. Leaders do not work alone. If you want to lead you need to learn about, acquire, and harness power.

Niccolo Machiavelli has become synonymous with leaders who gain and use power to only benefit themselves. Good leaders learn sources of power and how to use them to benefit others and their organization. Machiavelli by Santi de Tito from Wikipedia.

Power focuses organizational energy. Think of power like a spot light. The leader focuses the light in the direction he wants the followers to go, illuminating the objective. Without a power source there is no light to focus, no objective to achieve.

In an organization leaders often have one or more power sources available to accomplish the goals of the organization. The common power sources include, charismatic, expert, coercive, reward, and positional. A short description of each and their uses follow.

Charismatic power is likability. A synonym d, is referent. This source of power may get you in the door, but rarely lasts long except with those who are weak. Leaders who only use this power must do things in order for others to continue to like them, or at least continue to receive their approval. There is nothing wrong with being likable. If this is your only way to influence others eventually you will find yourself held hostage to the demands of others to remain likable. This source of power does develop resilience if the leader uses his or her charisma like bait and follows through by engaging in behaviors that develop trust and a genuine environment of physical and emotional safety.

Expert power stems from ones ability to do well or have specialized knowledge. This provides power in two ways. The first is like the artillerymen of old who guarded the secrets of their craft so their skills would always be in demand by armies. The second yet potentially fleeting source is through the ability to teach others your skill or knowledge. When you share those secrets that have made you successful, you have the potential to create rivals and replacements. Alternatively, you could also develop collaborators who desire to achieve more than either of you could alone. If you are truly an expert, there will always be a demand for your skills and knowledge. As a result, you will always have power to influence others. Like Charismatic power, you need things to ensure this power lasts. Continue to study changes in your field. Share some of your knowledge with other with no strings attached. Doing so develops trust that you use your knowledge to benefit others rather than just yourself. They only way your skill and knowledge retain power is by sharing it. However when you share it, you enable others to also begin developing expertise. If you fail to keep up with the times and charge too much for what you can do or know, others will surpass you and have more power. Before long your followers will be following them because they trust (hum seen that word before) the other person will treat them fairly

Sources of leadership power include charismatic power, expert power, positional power, reward power, and corrosive power. Each is a tool, neither good nor bad. Image by Thomas Kelly from unsplash.com

Legitimate, reward and coercive often go together but not always. Legitimate power is granted when awarded a ‘leadership’; position with in an organization. Sometimes this source of power is call positional power. CEOs have legitimate power to run their cooperation. They also possesses the ability to dole out rewards such as pay raises, promotions and prime parking spaces. On the coercive side, is employment termination, demotions and selection of another’s pet project. Legitimate power is limited to only those within the organization that agree to follow that person. It weakens when the leader behaves in such a way that followers move onto other organizations because they feel the leader does not have their best interest in mind (they lack trust). Leaders in legitimate positions of power are only effective when they can also use other sources of power to influence people outside their organization. The CEO who runs a company that makes the best product in its class will not lead long if no one buys the product, or he cannot influence suppliers to provide material at a reasonable price. Only when a manager in a position of perceived power develops trusting relationship with those outside an organization does that manager become a leader.

To be clear on this point, this extends down the ladder from the CEO. If a shop foreman in the stamping machine area has a good relation ship with the foreman in the warehouse, he maybe given priority to receive rolls of material and have spaced cleared of finished products sooner that perhaps the foreman in the milling machine area of a factory. As a result of that foreman’s relationship, he secures greater production for his operators. They they receive piece rate bonuses they are happy. If he monopolizes the warehouse’s material handling equipment and other sections cannot get their parts moved, that foreman may find he is out of a job and then his workers suffer. He is the the big kahuna. He cannot demand others who do not work for him do things but he can have influence.

Reward and coercive power does not solely rest with formal leaders. Each of these can be used on their own by providing rewards and punishment to others or together to mold behaviors. Sales representatives can influence behavior by offering a better price to a favor customer. Alternatively, a phone manufacturer may encourage the purchase of new smart phones by withholding software updates to keep older phones operational even if the older phone would still function.

Power is a tool. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem or opportunity looks like a nail. However the skilled carpenter with a small complement of basic hand tools tools is capable of building beautiful things. Between his experience and tools he can fashion wood into anything he can imagine. Take another person with a workshop full of the latest and greatest power tools but has no skills; he would not be able to build a simple wooden box.

When power is controlled and focus it can be used by leaders to accomplish great things that benefit many. When raw and untamed, power wreaks destruction. Image by Vance Osterhout from unsplash.com

As leaders practice their leadership skills they increase the power options available. Using a variety of tools shapes followers into quality employees, volunteers and future leaders. When they show those future leaders how to use the full spectrum of leadership powers, they prepare the organization for continued success well into the future. New leaders learn to adjust the focus and intensity of the organization’s spotlight so others can see their vision and follow them into the light and out of the darkness. Without power, there is no leadership. Power wielded poorly results in failed leadership. Only when someone masters the power of each tool, develops the necessary skills to use each tool, and develops trust with others does that power contain the potential for leadership.

Leaders need to develop a full complement of power sources to influence others. They must learn how to obtain, develop and use each tool. As they practice they will find that the tool they used to accomplish a task with one piece of wood, will not work so well with another piece. One version of a tool may not be capable of completing every job much like using a framing hammer to drive a tack. A tack hammer is the better choice.


McShane, S., Von Glinow, M. Organizational behavior: Emerging realities for the workplace revolution. 2008. McGraw-Hill

Leading by Training Others

    Leaders, by their position, are trainers. This important task is often overlooked by leaders particularly in larger organizations with training divisions. However, leaders are always responsible for their followers work and on-the-job behaviors, so they better be prepared to train them.  

Even when leaders are not training others, they are. Everything leaders do sets an example for others to follow. People begin to understand what behaviors result in recognition. Your behaviors demonstrate what behaviors are recognized. Photo by Nappy from pexels.com CC attribution.

    The purpose of training to create or change behaviors by influencing people work or behave in ways acceptable to the organization. One of the most basic training events is new employee orientation.  Orientation sets the stage for employees to conduct their activities in accordance with the organization’s documented procedures. In many organizations someone from human resources conducts new employee orientation. While this process serves to ensure all new people understand the company’s culture and expectations, only the leaders in each office, branch, or division can provide those employees with the expectations in their part of the organization. The best definitions of leadership include descriptions of influencing others, providing motivation, sharing a vision or improving the organization. Leaders who take time to train people do all these things.

    Frequently organizations introduce change by providing some sort of training program. The training describes the desired change. The goal is for employees to understand the new philosophy and provide the skills required to complete new processes. Frequently formal leaders are called upon to conduct the training but not always. How the trainer presents the material either improves acceptance and success or results in rejection of ideas by employees. Training presented passionately increases success and the trainer’s profile with senior leaders.

    Some organizations select high performing workers to receive training about changes then train the rest of the organization. Selection as an instructor gives line workers an appreciation for the vision of the organization’s top leaders. Using lower level employees as trainers has additional benefits. Those employees become in-house subject matter experts in the theory and process behind the change. They learn how to present ideas to influence others to change behaviors. They provide an opportunity for an organization to see how potential future leaders perform when given leadership tasks. The other employees view the trainers as leaders.

   Selecting peer trainers is an important task. Employees selected to become trainers take a few steps up the company ladder. This new position improves their view of the internal workings. Employees who learn to successfully influence others in a positive fashion demonstrate they are ready to become leaders. Their actions help implement the change senior leaders seek to implement. 

     Trainers learn more about the organizational culture. They help senior leaders determine if those employees’ knowledge, skills, and abilities align with future leadership position requirements. Smart employees seek ways to open doors like opportunities to teach and train to prepare for greater leadership roles. Employees may be unaware their desire to teach marks them as future leaders. Many managers overlook training ability when leadership positions become available. Do not overlook them.

     Not all organizations rely on in-house assets to provide training and implement change.  Many look outside and hire consultants. There are times consultants and outside trainers are necessary such as when fielding a new piece of equipment or implementing a new leadership program in a growing company without a training office. If you find it necessary to look outside for training, remember those consultants become leaders in your organization. Check their backgrounds before letting them have access to your vital human resources. Make sure they have a track record of doing what they say they do. It amazes me how many organizations hire outsiders to teach leadership. The consultant comes in for a short period of time, presents the material, then leaves and may never be heard from again. This type of training rarely is effective.

Anyone who teaches is a leader. The instructor may be an established organizational leader, an expert with no leadership title in the organization, or an outside consultant. Regardless, trainers influence others to change their behaviors so they are by default leaders. Photo by rawpixel.com from pxhere.com

    If you hire outsiders to teach your people a skill or ability, insist on periodic return visits to reinforce the lessons learned. This is important even if the training is for some sort of new technology or process. When the consultant periodically returns, it provides your people with the chance to improve their skills. If you hired the consultant because they are a real expert, you people receive more and change more with each exposure to that person.

     This principal also applies to trainings you select your people to attend outside the company. A school or consultant should offer some sort of follow up for their training. This enables your employees to reconnect when they run into some sort of problem. Several training models require students to attend training a few days each month and then return to their work place. They return to the school periodically to discuss how what they learned in earlier lessons worked out in the real world. The experts guide and mentor students to be more effective.

     Examples of such training programs include any of the apprentice programs in the building trades. Apprentices work for a master for months and years. The master teaches the apprentice a new skill then allows the student to practice. The master looks over the shoulder of the apprentice making corrections as necessary. As the apprentice improves, the master spends less time checking the work. When the student masters that task, the master teaches a new skill.

     The New England Association of Chiefs of Police offers a series of trainings for police leaders. In this model, students attend a week of training and learn several important leadership lessons. They return to their home agencies and apply what they learned over the course of a few weeks. Students check in with their teachers and each other to learn how to make corrections and improve their skills as they actually apply them to real world problems. The students return to the school after a few months to report successes and learn a new round of skills.  The periodic interaction with experts and application to real world problems allow those student leaders to become expert leaders much the same as the building trades apprentices.

Never stop learning. After three decades of leading others the author is seen here attending a year long training program for children advocacy center leaders. The lessons learned here will be transferred to others using the techniques and methods shared throughout this blog.

   Leaders influence organizational culture and behavior by training. Learning to train others provides junior employees opportunities to show their leaders they possess skills to influence others. They learn to communicate important ideas and concepts. By creating quality training programs, trainers help management introduce organizational changes. Standing in front of the crowd provides the trainer a spotlight to demonstrate their ability to their leaders and for leaders to influence others. As a leader you are a trainer in your organization. Change a life; change your organization; take time to train others and become a leader.