The Five Types Of Power That Great Leaders Use

by | Nov 23, 2022 | Executive Presence, Leadership Training

A truly great leader knows that to influence people and achieve success, they need to wield a certain amount of power and, more importantly, use it wisely. But there are different types of power — five, to be exact — so how do you know which one to use, and when?

This is the question we delve into in this article, so read on to discover how effective leaders use the five types of power to inspire and persuade the people around them.


How do we define ‘power’?


Power can be defined as “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others”.

In a work environment, it can come from an external source (such as being given a title or level of authority from someone higher up) or it can be an internal quality that a person cultivates.

Great leaders understand that true power is a combination of both internal and external power, not something that is reserved for the elite or those that have it bestowed upon them by someone else. It is this understanding that sets them apart from the rest and enables them to lead their teams to success.


Where does power come from?


Power can originate from many sources, including your personality traits, your position within an organisation and your relationships with others. Whereas tyrants use their power to control and manipulate people for their gain, true leaders understand how to use power effectively to benefit themselves, their team, and the entire organisation.


What are the five types of power?


As far back as 1959, researchers John French and Bertram Raven identified five sources (or ‘bases’) of social power.

These five power bases are as follows:

  • Legitimate
  • Reward
  • Expert
  • Referent
  • Coercive

To hone your leadership skills, you need to draw on all five of these power bases. Even more importantly, however, you need to know which one to use according to the situation.


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Legitimate power


Legitimate power comes from having authority over someone else due to your position within the organisation or company hierarchy.

This type of power is given to you by someone who has the authority to do so (e.g. your employer, manager, etc.), and it is generally used in combination with other types of power.

Legitimate power should always be used responsibly so it doesn’t come across as oppressive; rather, it should serve as a way of guiding while allowing room for individual growth and development opportunities.


Reward power


Reward power involves offering incentives such as bonuses or promotions in exchange for desired behaviour from team members.

While it can encourage motivation and demonstrate that you appreciate your team members, it can also lead to unhealthy competition if not managed properly.

It is also crucial that the reward is actually within your power to give and doesn’t rely on the approval of others – which may have a delegitimising effect on your leadership.


Expert power


This type of power is derived from knowledge and experience. When people respect your expertise, they are naturally inclined to follow your advice.

Using expert power wisely means not only sharing your knowledge with others but also being mindful of the language you use and encouraging open dialogue within your team.

To maintain credibility and the position of strength you have established, you should continue to hone your skills and further your knowledge.


Referent power


Referent power comes from charisma — when people like you, they are more likely to listen to you.

As put by Nicole Lipkin, author of the bestselling book What Keeps Leaders Up At Night, referent power gives a leader the greatest influence. It relies heavily on relationships built upon mutual respect, by displaying strong communication skills, demonstrating empathy towards others, or being seen by colleagues and team members as someone who leads by example (e.g. setting high standards).

Referent power is an internal type of power since it is not given to you by others, and it
works best when combined with other forms of leadership styles. Used in this way, it can help to foster collaboration amongst peers which ultimately leads to organisational success.


Coercive power


This type of power involves using fear or threats as a means of getting people to do what you want them to do. It should only be used sparingly, if at all, and only in cases where there is an urgent need for action with no time for discussion or debate about alternatives.

If you have earned your team’s trust through consistent positive reinforcement (referent power and reward power), then you will find it easier to get things done without having to resort to coercive power.


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How do effective leaders use the five types of power?


Knowing which type of power works best in different circumstances — and how to use them in combination with each other — is the key to being a successful leader.

For example, if you are faced with a situation that requires the use of coercive power, the key is understanding the motivation behind the action and knowing how far you need to go before crossing a line or causing resentment within your team.

Each type of power has its advantages and disadvantages, but when used correctly they can all be effective tools for positively influencing others.

Knowing when and how to use each one will help you lead your team more effectively, motivate them towards success, and build strong relationships with those around you.


Speak to NxtGEN Executive Presence about developing your leadership skills


At NxtGEN Executive Presence, we want to empower you to become the best leader you can be.

That means being able to inspire, persuade and influence those around you. Our Executive Presentation Skills Training will give you the knowledge and practical experience you need to develop world-class leadership skills, so reach out today to get started.

Don’t forget to also check out our blog and resources for more industry-leading trends and insights from the world of corporate leadership.