Forms of Power In A Nutshell

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 

Legitimate PowerPower derived from a formal position or title of authority.– CEO’s authority in an organization
– Department heads’ leadership within departments
Reward PowerPower associated with the ability to offer rewards or incentives for desired actions.– Sales managers offering bonuses for exceeding sales targets
– HR managers recognizing outstanding employees with awards
Expert PowerPower based on possessing specialized knowledge, skills, or expertise in a particular field.– Senior surgeons’ influence in healthcare due to their extensive experience
– Chief Technology Officer (CTO) guiding tech innovations
Referent PowerPower stemming from admiration, respect, and strong relationships with others.– Celebrity endorsements influencing consumer decisions
– Charismatic leaders earning the loyalty and trust of their teams
Coercive PowerPower involving the use of threats or punishment to force compliance or specific actions.– Project managers enforcing project deadlines through ultimatums
– Disciplinary actions taken by supervisors
Informational PowerPower derived from controlling valuable information that others need.– Temporary power held by data security personnel controlling encryption keys
– Project managers with crucial project information

Understanding forms of power

Various forms of power describe how one person may exert power over another in both personal and professional contexts.

While these definitions are certainly valid in some instances, they remain a superficial way to define power which, in truth, is far more nuanced.

In a landmark 1959 study by social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, the pair advocated that power could be separated into five separate and distinct forms. A sixth form was later added in 1965.

French and Raven equated power with social influence, describing it as “a change in the belief, attitude, or behavior of a person (the target of influence) which results from the action of another person (an influencing agent)”.

Since the 1950s, studies into social communication and power have resulted in the development of various theories.

One of these is that leadership and power are closely linked and that the various forms of power affect one’s leadership and success in the workplace.

The six forms of power 

According to French and Raven, the six forms of power include:


This is power derived from elected, selected, or appointed positions of authority.

Those with legitimate power maintain authority for as long as they remain in the position.

Since this type of power is recognized by subordinates, it is effective in hierarchical organizations and also in the military.


Where rewards such as raises, benefits, promotions, or praise are offered in exchange for performing a task or achieving a result.

Reward power can be effective but does not necessarily guarantee subordinates’ sustained support or commitment. 


Those with expert power possess detailed knowledge or expertise in a particular field.

They tend to attract people who want to benefit from their knowledge and their expertise engenders credibility and trust.


This tends to be associated with power enjoyed by celebrities and other public figures who have large followings.

These individuals can exert a sustained influence over others – sometimes even after death.

In the workplace, referent power is one of the most valuable because it is built on relationships characterized by admiration and respect.


Where threats are made to make someone take a desired course of action.

In the workplace, coercive threats are often rooted in fear and include the prospect of demotion, transfer, or termination.


A short-term form of power derived from controlling information others need to achieve something.

Project managers who possess the specific details of a project hold power momentarily, but this is relinquished once they share the details with the team.

For this reason, informational power does not build credibility or influence. 

Implications for the six forms of power

Each of the six forms of power has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Therefore, in the workplace, it is important for leaders to be aware of these and how they can impact culture and employee motivation.

Leaders can also use French and Raven’s work to identify a form they subconsciously default to which is not in their best interests. 

It is also worth noting that power must be exerted wisely, with a recent Gallup study finding that managers have more influence over employee well-being and burnout than the number of working hours.


  • Legitimate Power in Business: The CEO of a large corporation holds a position of legitimate power, and subordinates follow the CEO’s decisions, maintaining hierarchy and aligning organizational goals.
  • Reward Power in Sales and Marketing: A sales manager motivates the sales team by offering cash bonuses, paid vacations, and incentives for achieving and surpassing sales targets.
  • Expert Power in Healthcare: A senior surgeon possesses expert power due to extensive experience and knowledge in their specialty, earning the trust and respect of other medical professionals.
  • Referent Power in Celebrity Endorsements: A famous celebrity endorses a brand, leveraging their massive fan following and positive reputation to influence consumer purchasing decisions.
  • Coercive Power in Project Management: A project manager uses coercive power to address a team member’s consistent missed deadlines by issuing ultimatums and threats of removal from the project.
  • Informational Power in Data Security: An employee in a cybersecurity firm temporarily holds informational power by controlling encryption keys for accessing sensitive client data, ensuring data security.

Key takeaways:

  • Various forms of power describe how one person may exert power over another in both personal and professional contexts.
  • According to a landmark study by French and Raven in 1959, there are six forms of power: legitimate, reward, expert, referent, coercive, and informational.
  • Each of the six forms of power has distinct advantages and disadvantages and may be useful in different workplace situations. Managers need to be aware of how they exert power over others because some forms have potential downsides.

Key Highlights:

  • Introduction to Forms of Power:
    • Power is often associated with leadership and authority, but it comes in various forms and has nuanced meanings.
    • Social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven identified six distinct forms of power in a 1959 study.
    • Power is essentially seen as a change in belief, attitude, or behavior resulting from the action of an influencing agent.
  • The Six Forms of Power:
    • Legitimate Power: Derived from elected, selected, or appointed positions of authority. Effective in hierarchical organizations and the military.
    • Reward Power: Involves offering rewards like raises, promotions, or praise for task completion. It may not guarantee sustained support.
    • Expert Power: Based on possessing detailed knowledge or expertise in a specific field. Attracts trust and credibility.
    • Referent Power: Associated with influential public figures or celebrities with large followings. Built on admiration and respect.
    • Coercive Power: Involves making threats to force a desired action. Rooted in fear, often used in workplaces for control.
    • Informational Power: Derived from controlling necessary information temporarily. Loses influence once information is shared.
  • Implications of the Six Forms of Power:
    • Each form of power has its own advantages and disadvantages.
    • Leaders must understand how different forms of power impact workplace culture and employee motivation.
    • Recognizing their default power approach can help leaders use power more effectively.
    • Wise use of power is crucial, as managers can influence employee well-being and burnout more than just working hours.

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Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles encompass the behavioral qualities of a leader. These qualities are commonly used to direct, motivate, or manage groups of people. Some of the most recognized leadership styles include Autocratic, Democratic, or Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Blue Ocean Leadership

Authors and strategy experts Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne developed the idea of blue ocean leadership. In the same way that Kim and Mauborgne’s blue ocean strategy enables companies to create uncontested market space, blue ocean leadership allows companies to benefit from unrealized employee talent and potential.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that motivates, encourages, and inspires employees to contribute to company growth. Leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described the concept of transformational leadership in a 1978 book entitled Leadership. Although Burns’ research was focused on political leaders, the term is also applicable for businesses and organizational psychology.

Leading by Example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Leader vs. Boss

A leader is someone within an organization who possesses the ability to influence and lead others by example. Leaders inspire, support, and encourage those beneath them and work continuously to achieve objectives. A boss is someone within an organization who gives direct orders to subordinates, tends to be autocratic, and prefers to be in control at all times.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process that involves the identification and development of future leaders across all levels within a company. In essence, succession planning is a way for businesses to prepare for the future. The process ensures that when a key employee decides to leave, the company has someone else in the pipeline to fill their position.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fielder’s contingency model argues no style of leadership is superior to the rest evaluated against three measures of situational control, including leader-member relations, task structure, and leader power level. In Fiedler’s contingency model, task-oriented leaders perform best in highly favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Relationship-oriented leaders perform best in situations that are moderately favorable but can improve their position by using superior interpersonal skills.

Management vs. Leadership


Cultural Models

In the context of an organization, cultural models are frameworks that define, shape, and influence corporate culture. Cultural models also provide some structure to a corporate culture that tends to be fluid and vulnerable to change. Once upon a time, most businesses utilized a hierarchical culture where various levels of management oversaw subordinates below them. Today, however, there exists a greater diversity in models as leaders realize the top-down approach is outdated in many industries and that success can be found elsewhere.

Action-Centered Leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations. Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively. Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual.

High-Performance Coaching

High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership

Forms of Power

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 

Tipping Point Leadership

Tipping Point Leadership is a low-cost means of achieving a strategic shift in an organization by focusing on extremes. Here, the extremes may refer to small groups of people, acts, and activities that exert a disproportionate influence over business performance.

Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

The Vroom-Yetton decision model is a decision-making process based on situational leadership. According to this model, there are five decision-making styles guides group-based decision-making according to the situation at hand and the level of involvement of subordinates: Autocratic Type 1 (AI), Autocratic Type 2 (AII), Consultative Type 1 (CI), Consultative Type 2 (CII), Group-based Type 2 (GII).

Likert’s Management Systems

Likert’s management systems were developed by American social psychologist Rensis Likert. Likert’s management systems are a series of leadership theories based on the study of various organizational dynamics and characteristics. Likert proposed four systems of management, which can also be thought of as leadership styles: Exploitative authoritative, Benevolent authoritative, Consultative, Participative.

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