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The Role of Power in Leadership

The Role of Power in Leadership

The concepts of power and leadership are interconnected. While an individual may exert power without being a leader, an individual can’t be a leader without having power.

Power and Leadership Trends

We conducted a research study to better understand how leaders use power and how individuals and organizations can improve their leadership through the effective use of power. We surveyed participants who attended our senior executive leadership development programs, and the data we found indicated some tensions around leadership and the distribution of power.

In fact, nearly 60% of survey respondents reported they believe that their organizations work to empower their people at all levels, and 53% of those surveyed agreed that their organization rewards leaders for empowering people.

More than half stated that power is concentrated among a few select individuals in their organization; 28% of survey participants agreed that power is misused by top leaders within their organizations; and only 29% believed that their organizations teach their leaders how to effectively leverage their full power.

These organizational trends relative to power and leadership suggest that while power isn’t typically misused by top leaders, it does tend to be concentrated on a select few individuals. However, flatter organizational structures and self-directed work teams are becoming more commonplace, which may increase the level of empowerment that employees experience in future years.

Organizations also reward leaders who empower the people they lead, thereby encouraging overall employee empowerment; however, fewer organizations fully leverage opportunities to teach leaders how to effectively use their power for the greater good of the organization. This leaves the definition of appropriate and effective use of power largely up to individual leaders.

Sources of Leadership Power

When most people think about power, they immediately think about the control that high-level leaders exert from their positions atop the organizational hierarchy. But power extends far beyond the formal authority that comes from a title (or from having a corner office with a view). Leaders at all levels have access to power, but that power often goes unrecognized or underutilized.

Previous research has identified 7 bases of power that leaders may leverage:

  1. The power of position is the formal authority that derives from a person’s title or position in a group or an organization.
  2. The power of charisma is the influence that’s generated by a leader’s style or persona.
  3. The power of relationships is the influence that leaders gain through their formal and informal networks both inside and outside of their organizations.
  4. The power of information is the control that’s generated through the use of evidence deployed to make an argument.
  5. The power of expertise is the influence that comes from developing and communicating specialized knowledge (or the perception of knowledge).
  6. The power of punishment is the ability to sanction individuals for failure to conform to standards or expectations.
  7. The power to reward others is the ability to recognize or reward individuals for adhering to standards or expectations.

How to Leverage Power and Leadership Effectively

All in all, our research findings suggest that leaders can be more effective when they emphasize the power of relationships and the power of information, and also develop their other available bases of power.

Here are some strategies for leveraging power in leadership effectively, as we outline in our white paper:

1. Make relationships a priority. Your ability to use the power of relationships will be compromised if you’re not connecting with the right people. Therefore, identify the people with whom you need to establish or develop a relationship, and invest time and energy into your existing relationships. Seek to understand others better and acknowledge others’ needs to build the social capital required to influence others now and in the future.

Repair damaged relationships and the image others may have of you. Look for ways to reestablish trust with others through face-to-face interaction and the sharing of honest feedback. Be aware of how others perceive you, and look for ways to influence their perceptions by soliciting feedback from trusted others.

2. Don’t overplay your personal agenda. While the power of relationships can be an effective method for promoting your own agenda, it also risks others perceiving you as self-serving rather than a “team player.” It’s important for leaders to be aware of these negative perceptions to effectively leverage the power of relationships. Ensure that advancing your own agenda is not perceived as a misuse of power.

3. Maximize your communication network. Think about the people you communicate with the most. Are they providing you with access to unique information or redundant information? Expand your network to find people who may be untapped sources of information.

4. Be generous with information. If you are a central node or conduit of information, remember that keeping information to yourself can have negative consequences. Share information broadly and with integrity. You don’t want to be perceived as hoarding information for your personal gain. Of course, you don’t want to make the opposite mistake and reveal confidential or personal information.

5. Make the most of your position. Research and experience suggest that authority doesn’t automatically accompany a formal leadership role. We can all think of peers who, despite their similarities in tenure and level, may have more or less power than we do. In other words, position doesn’t always mean power. You may want to find some subtle ways to communicate your formal authority, such as including your title in your email signature, communicating in meetings where you normally keep quiet, or modifying your style of dress so that you resemble people at the level above you. This is also a good example of effective self-promotion at work.

6. Develop your brand of charisma. How would you feel if you were in an audience where your normally low-key CEO “borrowed” the style of an energetic, larger-than-life motivational speaker? At best you might be amused; at worst, you would see the CEO as a pathetic impression of the real thing.

Regardless of your level of charisma, the key is to make small changes in your leadership image while maintaining your authenticity. Maintain the characteristics that make you who you are, but try to identify 2 or 3 behaviors that might increase your ability to connect with others (such as making more eye contact, smiling more often). Practice those new behaviors, enlisting help from a coach or mentor if needed.

7. Be the expert. Perhaps the most interesting thing about power is that it’s generally in the eyes of the beholder. You can’t just have power de facto unless there are people willing to perceive you as having power. The same holds true for expert power – it comes from actual expertise (such as an advanced degree or relevant experience) or the perception of expertise. Don’t be shy about putting your credentials on your business cards, in your email signature, on social media, or talking about your experience and expertise.

8. Tailor your power to reward others. Many leaders mistakenly assume that leveraging reward power only means giving people more money. While this option sounds attractive, it’s not always possible. Consider recognizing and incentivizing your team members in other ways.

Ask your team members what they would find rewarding. Some team members may find a group picnic or outing highly rewarding; others may find this tedious or tiring. Time off or flexible hours might work for some employees; others may not even take notice. Whatever their incentive, don’t make the mistake of assuming that one reward fits all.

9. Reward with words. Give positive feedback often. Our experience with leaders across industries tells us that during the course of a typical working relationship, it takes a ratio of 4:1 (4 positives for every negative) for a receiver of feedback to believe that the feedback has been fair. This does not mean that you have to give a team member 4 positive pieces of feedback every time you have a negative message to deliver. It does suggest that many of us have a long way to go in terms of acknowledging what our people are doing right.

At the same time, when team members fail to live up to expectations, communicate and enforce your standards, but be sure to provide support along the way. We recommend using SBI to provide feedback in a talent conversation. Also, be explicit about consequences for behavior or results that don’t meet expectations – and follow through consistently.

10. Teach others. Leveraging your full power doesn’t mean hoarding it. If you want to empower the people you lead, you also need to teach them how to use the power they have available to them. Think about the people you lead. What are those at the top of the list doing effectively? What could those at the bottom of the list be doing better? Use the 7 bases of power as a way to evaluate, communicate, and teach about leadership power in your organization.

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October 4, 2019
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff to help you and your organization's leaders at every level. Want more content like this? Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-backed articles, webinars, insights, and news about leadership development solutions sent straight to your inbox.

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