Referent Power in Leadership

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Referent Power

I. Topic of Inquiry
It is important for managers to understand the sources of power and influence as they must rely upon the cooperation of subordinates in order to be successful. Strong managers rely upon more than just authority they also use leadership skills and power to obtain the most productivity from their staff. According to French and Raven (1959) there are five sources of power. Referent power seems to be the most influential and the least affected by change. To quote Paul Argenti, “Coercive power relies on the fact that people fear you, and reward power is only effective so long as people value the rewards you have to offer. Legitimate power relies on your rank in the company hierarchy, and recent events such as white-collar downsizing have shown how quickly that can change for any level of management. Expert power lasts as long as no one else knows as much as you do. Referent power is the only source that seems maintainable”. (Argenti, 2002, p.94)

Furthermore, Gilbert Fairholm states that the “authority [of managers] is often more a function of their personalities and personal charisma than it is of their official positions”. (Fairholm, 2001, p. iv) This is not to say that a manager does not require formal authority. But, as implied by Locke (2003) the combination of authority and referent power can create considerable influence on subordinates. The potential for a high level of influence sparks my desire to understand what referent power is, how it is obtained, how it affects performance and the risks associated with using it.

II. Summary of Findings

Referent Power - What is it?
Robbins & Coulter define referent power as “Power that arises because of a person’s desirable resources or personal traits”. (Robbins & Coulter, 2007, p. 505) But the results of my research reveal that it is more so the influence that person A (the agent) wields over person B (the target person) due to the target’s desire to please the agent. This desire may be the result of a feeling of identification, admiration or loyalty (Locke, 2003) and it is based on personal relationships. (Druckman & Swets, 1988) How important is referent power?

Most authors support that formal authority is important but generally personal powers (referent and expert) were the most influential. Per Shackleton (1995) in a study conducted by Yukl and Falbe to examine the use of power bases, the findings revealed that personal powers applied more influence on subordinate performance than did legitimate authority. Henderson & Moskos (1985) report that in a study of its military, the Soviet leadership recognized that referent power is “probably the most powerful form of leader influence” (p. 139). And per Chemers (1997) in a study conducted by Podsakoff and Schreisheim it was reported that only power with referent and expert bases created consistent positive effects on the motivation of subordinates. The results of these studies are powerful examples of how authority combined with referent power can enable a manager to have great influence to motivate, influence and improve the productivity of subordinates. How is referent power developed?

Since referent power is not related to authority or legitimate power it is therefore not bestowed and somehow must be developed. Below are the factors that foster the development of referent power. 1.) Time and Association. According to Henderson & Moskos (1985) before referent power can be developed there is a basic pair of foundations that must be in place: First, both parties must expect “the relationship to endure for an extended period” (p. 133). And second, there must be “close, frequent, and structured association” (p. 133). 2.) Charisma is the key component of referent authority. Charisma is a person’s powerful likable personality; it is a personality that attracts people and gains their admiration. It is inherent in a person who captures people’s...
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