Leadership: Bases of Power sample essay

Who would want to work for a weak manager? Managers need power to do their jobs, because their jobs require them to influence others. Consequently, managers who feel powerless to influence others experience a tremendous amount of frustration and stress. Their staff members tend to feel frustrated too. Power means many different things to different people. For some, power is seen as corrupt. For others, the more power they have, the more successful they feel. For even others, power is of no interest at all.

Positions of authority confer power to the people who hold managerial positions. However, managers who rely solely on their formal authority to influence others will find that it doesn’t inspire their staff, and can even demoralize them. Hence, it helps to also derive power from other sources. Charisma and having personal appeal are sources of power too. Power can also be developed by becoming and expert or by performing critical role for the firm. Bases of Social Power

Bases of power refer to the methods that managers and leaders utilize to influence their employees. When examining bases of power, the concept of authority must also be considered. These two are interconnected attributes tied to the behavior of superiors over subordinates. In their article, “Are There No Limits To Authority?”, David Knights and Darren McCabe explain that “power should be understood to be a condition of social relations. Thus, it is erroneous to ask who has power. Instead, it is necessary to explore how power is exercised.”

In turn, the nature of how power is exercised is a workable definition for authority. In short, authority and power are intertwined, with power being the ability to do things or have others do what one has ordered while authority is the foundation on which that power is built. The bases of social power are very diverse, and no list is ever complete. Nonetheless, the commonly identified bases of power fit pretty well into two categories; position-related factors and personal factors.

Position-related factors. Position power comes from the legitimacy inherent in many positions, the ability to provide rewards, the ability to coerce, access to valuable information and performing a critical function. These position-related factors are: Legitimate power allows leaders to motivate others simply because they hold the leadership position. Sometimes we comply with the wishes of a leader just because of the societal expectations for us to do so. For instance, if Colin Powell shows up at your club’s luncheon and wants to say a few words, you let him. Why do you give him that privilege? Stupid question.

He’s the Secretary of State! You just do that sort of thing for someone in his position. That’s legitimate power. That kind of legitimacy isn’t always very strong for managers who are promoted to a position in which they must supervise their former peers. If the former peers have any difficulty adjusting to their managers’ new positions, legitimacy will be kind of weak. Legitimate power comes from having a position of power in an organization, such as being the boss or a key member of a leadership team. This power comes when employees in the organization recognize the authority of the individual. For example, the CEO who determines the overall direction of the company and the resource needs of the company.

Legitimate power rests in the belief among employees that their manager has the right to give orders based on his or her position. For example, at the scene of a crime, people usually comply with the orders of a uniformed police officer based simply on their shared belief that he or she has the predetermined authority to give such orders. In a corporate setting, employees comply with the orders of a manager who relies on legitimate power based on the position in the organizational hierarchy that the manager holds. Yet, although employees may comply based on legitimate power, they may not feel a sense of commitment or cooperation.

Reward power is the ability to provide incentives to others if they will cooperate with you. Managers who can affect their direct reports’ income, perks, job assignments, etc. are able to offer rewards in exchange for compliance. Having a high degree of reward power really helps a manager influence others. Reward power is conveyed through rewarding individuals for compliance with one’s wishes. This may be done through given bonuses, raises, a promotion, extra time off from work, etc. For example, the supervisor who provides employees comp time when they meet an objective she sets for a project. Reward power, as the name implies, rests on the ability of a manager to give some sort of reward to employees. These rewards can range from monetary compensation to improved work schedules.

Reward power often does not need monetary or other tangible compensation to work when managers can convey various intangible benefits as rewards. Huey describes Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., as an active user of reward power. Walton relies heavily on these intangible awards, indicating that “nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They are absolutely free-and worth a fortune”. When reward power is used in a flexible manner, it can prove to be a strong motivator, as Crosby, Deming, and others have shown. Still, when organizations rely too rigidly on rewards, the system can backfire. Employees may be tempted to unethically or even illegally meet the quotas to which overly rigid reward systems may be tied. Another problem associated with rewards as a base for power is the possibility that the rewards will divert employees’ attention from their jobs and focus their attention instead on the rewards dangled before them.

Coercive power is the ability to punish or intimidate. It’s often said that unions eliminate management’s ability to sanction uncooperative employees. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but when collective bargaining agreements state that management can only terminate employees with cause, management does have restricted ability to coerce cooperation. Managers should use coercion with great care anyway. Coercion only motivates minimal cooperation and breeds resentment. Coercive power is conveyed through fear of losing one’s job, being demoted, receiving a poor performance review, having prime projects taken away, etc. This power is gotten through threatening others. For example, the VP of Sales who threatens sales folks to meet their goals or get replaced. Coercive power rests in the ability of a manager to force an employee to comply with an order through the threat of punishment.

Coercive power typically leads to short-term compliance, but in the long-run produces dysfunctional behavior. Coercion reduces employees’ satisfaction with their jobs, leading to lack of commitment and general employee withdrawal. In the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, coercive power has seen a decline in the last 50 years. Several reasons contribute to this, ranging from the legal erosion of employment-at-will and the awareness of employee violence or other forms of retaliatory behavior. Equally important as an effect on the receding popularity of coercion as a basis of power has been the influence of quality management theorists, such as Philip Crosby and W. Edwards Deming.

They suggested that there is a decline in productivity and creativity when coercive power is employed. The use of coercive power results in an atmosphere of insecurity or fear. In spite of this insight, coercion as a base of power continues to play a role even in those organizations influenced by theories of quality management. In times of economic crisis or threats to the survival of the organization at large, coercion may come to the forefront. Coercive power may also materialize as organizations attempt to streamline their operations for maximum efficiency. If employees must be fired, those who fail to conform to the organizational goals for survival will be the most likely candidates for termination.

The threat of termination for failure to comply, in turn, is coercive power. Access to valuable information produces power because valuable information is a resource that can be exchanged. Back in the days when managers had secretaries do all their typing and schedule their meetings, some secretaries had access to a lot of important information. Consequently, people who were nice to secretaries were able to get information and access to key personnel that jerks couldn’t get. Even without having formal authority, the secretaries did have power, and shrewd business people treated secretaries with respect. Performing a critical function confers power, but only to the extent that the individual or group performing the function is irreplaceable.

One of my favorite examples of criticality and irreplaceability as they pertain to power comes from NBC’s television show, West Wing. At the end of the first season, the producers were expecting to have to renegotiate a lot of the actors’ contracts. The producers wanted to bring the whole cast back because audiences don’t react well to new actors playing established roles or to roles that are clumsily dropped from the story. Thus, each actor was critical and irreplaceable. Of course, producers don’t have to replace an actor whose character died. So, the writers arranged to have the West Wing season finale end with a gunshot that could have killed any of the critical actors.

It wasn’t until the second season that we found out who got hit. By making the actors less critical, the producers reduced the actors’ negotiating power. Personal factors. A number of personal qualities can also contribute to a person’s power in an organization. Some of these are: Expertise that can be used in exchange for favors is a form of power. For instance, if you’re an expert with PowerPoint you can help colleagues put together their presentations, and you can get favors from them in return. Expert power comes from ones’ experiences, skills or knowledge. As we gain experience in particular areas, and become thought leaders in those areas, we begin to gather expert power that can be utilized to get others to help us meet our goals.

For example, the Project Manager who is an expert at solving particularly challenging problems to ensure a project stays on track. Expert power rests on the belief of employees that an individual has a particularly high level of knowledge or highly specialized skill set. Managers may be accorded authority based on the perception of their greater knowledge of the tasks at hand than their employees. Interestingly, in expert power, the superior may not rank higher than the other persons in a formal sense. Thus, when an equipment repair person comes to the CEO’s office to fix a malfunctioning piece of machinery, no question exists that the CEO outranks the repair person; yet regarding the specific task of getting the machine operational, the CEO is likely to follow the orders of the repair person.

Expert power has within it a built-in point of weakness: as a point of power, expertise diminishes as knowledge is shared. If a manager shares knowledge or skill instruction with his or her employees, in time they will acquire a similar knowledge base or skill set. As the employees grow to equal the manager’s knowledge or skills, their respect for the superiority of his expertise diminishes. The result is either that the manager’s authority diminishes or that the manager intentionally chooses not to share his or her knowledge base or skill set with the employees.

The former choice weakens the manager’s authority over time, while the latter weakens the organization’s effectiveness over time. Likeability, or any kind of personal attractiveness, also gives you power. If people like to be around you because you’re witty, friendly, famous or good looking, you’re also likely to be pretty persuasive. We all want to do favors for people we like, up to a limit anyway.

Charisma has multiple meanings. A person with charisma has a special interpersonal appeal. Charisma can be viewed as a particularly strong form of likeability or attractiveness. That’s the kind of charisma that Princess Diana had. Charismatic leaders, on the other hand, communicate a vision that’s very appealing and they energize others to pursue it with them. If you want to be a charismatic leader, (a) you have to have an ambitious vision for the group you’re leading, (b) you have to be excited about it, (c) you have to be confident in the group’s ability to achieve that vision, and (d) you have to be able to communicate your vision, excitement, and confidence.

That’s the kind of charisma that Winston Churchill had. Persuasive ability, which is clearly associated with the ability to influence others, is another personal source of power. Intellectual problem solving abilities (e.g., rational problem solving ability, creative problem solving ability, inductive reasoning ability) help people influence others. So do interpersonal persuasion skills. On the list of influence tactics, “reason” is generally considered the best way to influence others. It’s ranked above “reciprocity,” which draws on reward power (e.g., a bonus in exchange for exceptional performance), and “retribution” which uses threats and intimidation. To the extent that reason is a great way to influence others, possessing the ability to reason with others is a great power base.

Credibility is an important personal base of power. We are more likely to be persuaded by and follow someone with high credibility than we are someone with low or no credibility. Credibility comes from integrity, character, competence, and the ability to lead. Integrity means being open and sharing information that people need and have a right to know. Hidden agendas undermine integrity. So does the unwillingness to provide truthful, well-intentioned, constructive criticism. Honesty also has to be tempered with discretion. Managers need to show discretion and not say negative things about people as gossip or with the intent to hurt, even if those negative things are true.

Remember the lesson from the movie, Jerry Maguire, “brutal truth” can be a bad thing. Character is the strength to do what needs to be done in difficult times. A basketball team has character if it tends to play well at the end of close games. A businessperson demonstrates character by acting in a moral and ethical way despite pressures or self-interests that push them to do otherwise. Competence is one’s knowledge and skills that pertain to a given situation. When someone tries to reason with you and gain your support for a certain course of action, their competence in that area affects their persuasiveness. If they don’t know what they’re talking about, you’re not going to be influenced.

Competence contributes to credibility, and credibility allows one person to influence another. Finally, the ability to lead contributes to managers’ credibility. Would you enthusiastically follow a leader who is unable to inspire others, manage conflict, delegate tasks or coordinate activities? No matter how much you respect a leader for her task-related knowledge, integrity and character, you’ll have reservations about working hard for her if she doesn’t demonstrate the ability to lead.

In Summary …

Managers must have power, and they would do well to develop more than just the ability to reward and punish others. Having resources and information that can be exchanged for cooperation is also helpful. Having personal qualities that inspire confidence and a willingness to follow might be even more useful. Nevertheless, all are sources of power.


Victor, D. (n.d.). Leadership Styles and Bases of Power. Retrieved February 25,2013, from: http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/management/Int-Loc/Leadership-Styles-and-Bases-of-Power.html#ixzz2Lt2Q7QbI Abudi, G. (2011). The 5 Types of Power in Leadership. Retrieved February,from: http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2011/08/26/the-5-types-of-power-in-leadership/

Wiliams, S. (2004). Building Your Power Bases. Retrieved February 25, 2013, from: http://www.wright.edu/~scott.williams/LeaderLetter/power.htm