Career Development

7 sources of leadership power

Tom Moriarty explains the difference between personal power and position power.

By Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor

One can define leadership as influencing the activities of others toward accomplishing a goal. And we can define power as a leader’s potential to influence the activities of others toward accomplishing a goal. Without a source of power there can be no leadership.

One can define two power bases: position and personal. Position power is the power given to the leader by the organization. It’s the power granted to the leader based on the job title.

Personal power is power other people give to the leader. That includes the leader’s subordinates, peers and bosses. Personal power is an indication of the level of commitment others have to the leader. Personal power is linked to one’s personality, competence and integrity. Table 1 outlines the seven key types of power.

Source Type Influence on others
Coercive power Position The ability to impose sanctions or punishment to gain compliance
Reward power Position The ability to provide rewards or recognition to gain compliance
Legitimate power Position The right to influence the activities of others based on job title or position
Expert power Personal Respect gained based on skills, expertise or experience
Referent power Personal Positive personal traits or integrity
Information power Position and personal Possession of or access to, valuable information
Connection power Position and personal Access to others who can provide rewards or sanctions
Table 1. The table shows the seven major sources of a leader’s power.

A leader should consider these sources of power and be able to incorporate them appropriately. A leader should consider the best sources of power to be employed to achieve success and effectiveness.

So, now you should be asking yourself: “Is there one best and preferred source of power?” The answer is yes, if you’re only concerned with immediate success. For instance, imagine a fire breaks out and you need to ensure a process for volatile hydrocarbons is shut down safely. In this case, position power is the best choice. In most other situations you need to move among the sources of power. Table 2 shows examples of actions that might enhance various sources of power.

Leader action Typical effects Effect on power
Uses sanctions to gain compliance, gives corrective feedback for poor performance • Team believes the leader will use sanctions when necessary • Increases coercive and referent power in team members' eyes
  • The boss notes the leader didn't abuse delegated authority • Builds referent power with the boss
  • Leader gains respect because of judicious use of coercive power  
Makes good decisions in the area of authority • Team members and peers perceive the leader as competent • More legitimate and expert power with boss, team and peers
  • The boss notes good decision-making and may grant more authority  
Uses rewards appropriately, recognizes notably good performance • Team members perceive the leader will use rewards or positive recognition • Increase reward and referent power with team
  • The boss, peers and team members notice and respect the proper use of reward authority • Increases referent power with boss and peers
Table 2. This table shows the benefits that accrue to those who wield power appropriately.

 

Power can be lost quickly if a leader misuses legitimate power. Table 3 offers a few examples of how this can happen.

Leader action Typical effects Effect on power
Uses sanctions inappropriately, misuses corrective feedback • Team loses respect for the leader • Reduces referent power with boss, team and peers
  • The boss notes the leader can't handle sanction authority • Might also erode coercive power
  • The leader loses respect from peers   
Threatens sanctions but never follows through •Team doesn't perceive the leader will use sanctions •Reduces coercive power with the team
Gives rewards to everyone, regardless of performance • Team feels there is no need to work harder if everyone gets the same reward • Reduces reward power with team
  • Rewards become expected, as opposed to being performance-based • Reduces referent power with boss, peers and team
  • The boss notes the leader is abusing the rewards system  
Table 3. These are some examples of the negative fallout from abuse of power.


A leader must use power wisely and justly, or it can become a liability rather than an asset. It only takes one incompetent act to result in an immediate loss of power. Good leaders work to build their sources of power and use their powers to influence others wisely.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER. Contact him at tjmpe@alidade-mer.com and (321) 773-3356.