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

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