The “Power Grid” of Leadership

“Who died and made you boss?”

I’ve often mused that my mom’s chiding question will be the title of the first leadership book I publish. After all, her blunt but good-natured words were very effective in reminding these young ears that bossiness does not a leader make. You can tell people what to do, but that doesn’t mean they’ll choose to follow.

You may even have real power, but not use it wisely. That’s why it is helpful for managers to consider what are called the bases of power, first identified back in 1959 by researchers John French and Bertram Raven, and updated more recently by scholars like Robert Benfari.*

A leader’s style may be directly connected to his or her understanding, appreciation, and use of these various types of power. So that you don’t suffer from a “power outage,” let me plug you into the power grid of leadership:



  • Legitimate Power: Your “stripes.” This power emanates from your title and position in the organization. Caution: people may salute the uniform, but are they saluting the person? Are they following you because they have to or because they want to? New managers often learn that the title they thought would grant them instant authority simply gives them responsibility. It is followers who ultimately determine a leader’s effectiveness.

  • Coercive Power: Your “stick.” This is your ability to sanction others for failure to comply. It may get results in the short-term and be effective in combating serious malfeasance, but it rarely inspires individuals to follow you voluntarily in the long-term. Fear is a powerful but dangerous motivator that can hurt the leader as well as the follower.

  • Reward Power: Your “sweets.” This is your ability to give something of value for performance. The challenge for leaders is to understand what is of value to each follower, and when and how to deliver rewards in meaningful, sustainable, and practical ways.

  • Expert Power: Your “smarts.” This is your specialized knowledge of some facet of your organization’s work. People turn to you for advice and guidance in this area. For some leaders it can be a trap. A gifted writer who becomes an editor may try to stay in the comfort zone of writing rather than learning the skills needed to coach writers and lead the team. Some managers may feel driven to be an expert in every facet of the business, rather than hiring others with complementary expertise.

  • Referent Power: Your “substance.” This is one of the most effective styles of power and it can serve people at any level of an organization. Referent power means people identify with you, they admire what you stand for and generally feel better when they are around you. You have a storehouse of what some scholars call “social capital.” People trust you to walk your talk. They choose to follow.

  • Information Power: Your “stuff.” In today’s world, and especially in newsrooms, those with access to the latest, best, and most information have a high degree of power. This refers to both internal business information as well as the data that generates good journalism. Leaders who intentionally keep others in the dark are rarely seen as positive forces; those who constructively keep others “in the loop” grow referent power and their position of leadership.

As you read through the “power grid,” you may notice that only one of them, legitimate, is the province of managers alone. Every other type of power can be exercised by individuals at all levels of an organization.

Long before many leaders were given the title of “manager,” they were already influential in their organizations, generally for their expert and referent power, exercised in tandem.

When those folks lead the way in word or deed, others are apt to follow. And no one, not even my dear departed mom, would ask “Who made you boss?”

What type of power do you tap into most? Take this self-test to learn.

* I often recommend Benfari’s 1999 book “Understanding and Changing Your Management Style,” to leaders interested in building awareness of personality preferences, approaches to power, and other aspects of their management style.

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