6 sources of social power in leadership

How to lead by Oaza Academy Entrepreneurship & Leadership


Let’s dive into the source of your power!  The heart of leadership is influence and influence is social power in action.  Social psychologists French and Raven studied phenomena of social power more than half a century ago. Their findings still help us today to understand influence.

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Power vs Influence, what is the difference? 

Social power is the potential to influence other people. Social influence is the power used. A leader can have great power potential, but his influence might be limited due to his poor skills in using social power.

There are five basic sources of power: Legitimate, Reward, Coercive, Informational, Expert and Referent power. Let’s take a closer look into each one of them.

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1.Legitimate power

Belief that a person has the formal right to make demands, and to expect others to be compliant and obedient. This is where you are hired, elected or appointed to a position that comes with legitimate responsibilities. So, say you′re a frontline supervisor you′re probably going at some point to make people′s schedule. That′s your legitimate responsibility. Its tied to your position. Prime minister, CEO, a policeman or a teacher also have legitimate power. Good thing with legitimate power is that we do not have to explain why we demand something from people, but it does not last forever – only as long as we are in the legitimate position.

2. Reward power

Comes from leader’s ability to compensate people for compliance. The compensation might include raises, money, promotions, training opportunities, compliments or just a smile. Im a middle-aged person and I still like a reward. If someone says Excellent job that’s a reward for me. Expected future reward motivates followers to stay in relationship. It doesn’t lead to internalization and depends on rewards awaluable. Once the rewards are gone so is the influence.

3.Coercive power

The flip side of reward power is coercive power. Leader can punish others for noncompliance. Threats and punishments are common coercive tools. Wise leader will use coercive power as a last resort because It creates distrust and conflict. This is the power source that you don’t want to over use if you want to influence people in long term. Otherwise, the followers will be motivated to leave the relationship.

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4. Informational power

Its not tied to you as a person, it’s the power of the information you have. Once you share the information, the power is gone. On the other hand, if you hide the information, you will not be liked by followers for long. Sharing information in teamwork is crucial to success. Leader can use information to empower followers or with hold the information and create distrust. Sometimes, Information might be used as a bargaining tool. 

5. Expert power

If you have a high level of education and knowledge let’s say youre scientist, physician, lawyer or engineer than you have the expertise. Surgeon „knows how to operate “and patient obeys. The power of an expert is limited to the domain of his expertise. Don’t expect from a surgeon to give you fashion advise! Expertise enable leaders to generally outperform followers.  Raises trust and respect but only in one area.

6. Referent power

It is based on the resource of respect and/or love. Leaders with values, integrity and honesty raise respect and have great referent power.  Influencers and/or celebrities also use referent power. Great leaders prefer to use referent power because it makes everyone feel good. It improves relationships and social climate.  Whenever I talk about referent power in my lectures, people mention people like Oprah Winfrey. She has a lot of referent influence over people. She recommends books and then people read them, and they become bestsellers. She gives advice and people take it… It’s a kind of power where people want to follow you.

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To be a joyful leader, one needs a more robust source of power than a title, an ability to reward or punish, or access to information – one needs a more personalized and advanced power sources like expert power and referent power. By understanding different sources of power, one can use the cocktail of powers to become an influential joyful leader. But, remember, great power comes with great responsibility!




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  1. Sabina Morosini, Joyful Leadership Manual 
  2. French J., Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In Cartwright, D. (Ed.) Studies in social power (pp. 150-167). Ann Arbor,
    MI, US: Institute for Social Research. 
  3. Morosini Turčinović, S. (2018). Joyful leadership: Social power,
    influence and change. Unpublished manuscript, Laboratory of Social
    Psychology, Croatia.
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