The Five Sources of a Leader’s Power, and how (and how not) to use them Power is a force of influence and authority. Most leaders wield power, but how power is manifested and used often differs between leaders. Where does a leader get power from? Or do a leader’s followers give it to them? Well it’s both. In this article, we’ll be looking at the five different sources of power a leader can use, with some advice on when these powers should be used, and perhaps when not.
The five sources of a leader’s power come from distinctly different sources. Here’s an overview:
Expert Power: When a leader has significant domain knowledge/skills. E.g. an expert accountant influences how junior accountants go about their tasks
Positional Power: Comes when a leader has a legitimately held position of authority. E.g. typically, the CEO of an organization has the highest positional power
Reward Power: Is evident when a leader can give, or take away, a reward. E.g. a leader can influence a follower’s behavior by awarding a bonus, or taking away perks
Coercive Power: This is felt when a leader creates the perception of a threat. E.g. a leader has coercive power if her followers believe that she will initiate disciplinary action
Personal Power: Influence gained by persuasion. E.g. a manager may have to rely on nothing more than a friendly please and thankyou for an employee to perform a task
So now we will look at each of these sources of power and consider when they could be used, and when it’s not appropriate to use them…
If you’re reading this then you’re probably like most technical professionals and leaders that potentially have expert power. It is the esoteric nature of the technical professional’s subject matter that means most superiors or colleagues don’t possess the same applicable knowledge or judgment as you, even if you have no formal authority on the subject. Therefore your word on your subject carries weight and has the means to influence the outcome of decisions where it applies. For example a programmer can influence the design of a niche application because of their knowledge of a codebase, and a support engineer can influence how a support process operates because they are known to be the best at supporting that function.
It is common, therefore, that followers can have more expert power than their leaders. New leaders particularly can possess far less knowledge than their followers. This can put you in a vulnerable position. To gain the same level of knowledge can be time-consuming and possibly not practical, if skills are hard to acquire. You wouldn’t expect an CTO to take a Cisco course so that they can directly influence the outcome of a network design, would you? As a leader in this situation, you should not rely only on expert power to influence outcomes and use other sources of power accordingly.
Therefore, by possessing expert power you have something that most others cannot easily acquire. It is a powerful asset. But is it always used for the greater good? No. Withholding knowledge as a means of gaining or maintaining power is all too common. Leaders who identify this practice have a difficult challenge, but it must be avoided. One might see this where IT departments are in the process of being outsourced, or if an employee feels threatened by new members of their team. As a leader in this situation you should apply other powers to resolve the problem, such as rewarding knowledge sharing or building closer relationships with the affected employee to persuade him out of this way of thinking.
Use expert power when…
• you have a genuine expertise in a subject
• or you have access to resources within your control who do Don’t use expert power when…
• you’re unsure of your competence in a subject
Positional power is gained by a person’s role in their organization. In many organizations a grading system is used to position an employee,...
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