Leadership and Power

Leadership as a Function of Power



We use the word power quite often in our everyday lives and, traditionally, there is a negative connotation to it. We usually think about power as the ability of a certain man or a group of people to control us. In other words, when somebody has power over us, we feel helpless. According to sociology, in essence power is „…a legal or social capability to apply force”
(Giddens, 1997, p. 337).

“Power in management is understood as the ability of an individual who is formally in power to have an impact over the behavior of other people within the organization in order to achieve a certain result ” (Cutting, 2008, p.218).

Depending on the way it has been obtained, power may be legitimate (legal, formal) or social. Legitimate power is a part of the organizational culture and is an integral part of the management structure – every level in the hierarchy corresponds to a certain level of power, which is necessary in order to attain the organizational goals and to observe the norms of behavior.

In other words, legitimate power is related to a specific position and not to the person holding it. Unlike legitimate power, social power is typical for informal groups. It is mostly focused on the leader but yet again it does not belong to a specific person. If, by any reason, the leader changes, the new leader will receive the same power and the old leader will in turn be stripped of it during his “dethronement” (Gerber, Macionis, Linda, 2003).

There is a dispute whether power is always innate. Some see it as the potential ability to have
a certain impact; others – as a matter of influence as an act. It can be concluded that power is
innate for a given person in a given context and exercising influence, thanks to this power,
represents its manifestation.

Power is an event of significant importance to management. One of the basic tasks of management is to discern the ways in which a given person or group may exercise influence over other people in order to attain the organization’s goals. To achieve this form of management, it is necessary to apply either personal influence or power. Personal influence is rather the object of the study of psychology but power is a construct that exists within any organization and its structure, culture, and values (Angelov, 1998).

When considering influence, it may be beneficial to note the necessary distinction between motivation and manipulation. They are both representations of different forms of influence. Motivation is typically achieved by the personal influence of a leader by providing full disclosure of information and finding ways of involving his followers without using his formal power. Manipulation, on the other hand, is often a function of formal power.

The formality of the relationship between the organizational leader (director) and followers (workers or employees) in combination with the power of the former one, often prove to be enough of a requirement for a manager to present only partial information which he expects to lead to the
approval of his employees. The reasoning behind such an act is usually to save efforts on
motivation by shaping the needed attitude for achieving the goals in a more concrete way.



Power and leadership have two very similar traits. The first one is that they both need actors,
a context and a subject. For leadership, those are the leader, the specific situation and his
followers; and for power – the bearer of power, his competences which set the limitations of
using power, and the people over which that power is exercised. In order to carry out his
duties, a leader always has a certain amount of power. If he is informal an informal leader, he
is vested with social power.

Formal managers are characterized by legitimate power. In both
cases, leadership is directly linked to power, yet power does not certainly signify leadership.
Undoubtedly, adequate use of power is a part of a leader’s competences. The successful
leader needs to understand the importance of the power which is vested in him and to exert
it according to the culture of the group and the personal necessities of the followers.

Unfortunately, power and, specifically its inadequate use, can harm the leader by distancing
him from his followers and isolating him from the group.

In this case, by inadequate we do not mean only the excessive use of power, but also its
insufficient use. Power is needed for the execution of the normative functions of a leader.

They are the consequence not only of leadership but of the group’s values as well. When a
leader does not undertake restrictive measures towards his followers acting in contradiction
with the values of the group, the group loses its trust in their leader who is often accused of
weakness, lack of interest, conflicting interests, bias etc.

Usually, in such cases, the leader is stripped of power. If the power in question is social, the members of the group either vest it in somebody else or divide it between themselves. If we are speaking about formal power – management is given the task of finding someone capable of handling the adequate use of power.

At the same time, the excessive use of power is regarded as losing one’s touch. Usually, these
result from the improper understanding of the concept of power by the leader. There are a
lot of examples in which the leader – under the influence of power – is under the impression
that he has a clear superiority and dominance over his followers and does not shy away from
showing it.

A leader may sometimes perceive his role as someone who can control the
behavior of others is not obliged to respect their opinion. Every disobedience is considered a
personal affront and an attempt to challenge his authority. Once present, such transformation
of the leader is very hard to reverse. In its last stage, this process generates the idea that the
achievements are personal and not a result of the efforts of the group as a whole (French R,
Rayner C, Rees G, Rumbles S, 2011).



To summarize, there are the two types of power depending on the type of group – formal or
informal. The followers of informal leaders have vested in them social power; thus, they have
authorized him to influence their behavior. In the context of an organization, the manager has
formal power, which is an integral part of the structure of management. Yet leadership does
not use only one of these types of power. Every leader has his individual traits, skills,
viewpoints and experience, which allow him to ‘fight’ for certain power over his followers. The
personal traits of the leader, his suitability and behaviour make the group to give him their
trust and, therefore, power.

Based on the leader’s qualities, there are a number of leadership power types:

 Expert power – typical for leaders who show great knowledge and skills in a specific
domain. This type of power allows a leader to be regarded by the followers as a very
good professional;
 Referent power –leaders who control the behaviour of their followers by setting their
own example. It is often described as respect or liking the leader as a human being;
 Legitimate power – this is the type of power which is bestowed by the role that a leader
exercises within the group. The more important the role, the bigger the power is and
vice versa – the less significant a leader is, the less legitimacy he has;
 Reward power – in order for this type of power to work, it is necessary for a leader to
have a set of tools (not only material, but personal and social skills) with which to
reward his followers. They follow him in the pursuit of receiving his encouragement;
 Coercive power – this type of power is reciprocal to the reward power. To achieve it, a
leader needs to be able to enforce restrictions over his followers. In other words – to
punish them, again not only by imposing material sanctions (Riggio, 2003).

In order to receive any of these types of power, the leader has to fight and defend his right to
power. If a leader has specific qualities, they are perceived by the group and the followers are
confident that this power will be adequately used. In order for the difference between the
types of power to become clear, let us draw a comparison.

Let us imagine a soldier dressed in a uniform. His uniform symbolizes the power over the group to which he is a leader – social or formal. As military men are told apart by their uniforms, so can these two types of power be distinguished as well as formal and informal leaders can be differentiated. Aside from the uniform, some military men may have medals of specific merit, courage etc. They have gone over and beyond the call of duty and, because of this, they have received those medals. They can be compared to the different types of power which the leader has fought for and defended on the basis of his skills and qualities.

It is interesting to note the fact that every type of power holds a different degree of
satisfaction, for the leader himself and for his followers as well. It so happens that sometimes
the leader exerts power without deriving joy from it (Todorova, 1995). The interrelation
between the type of the power exerted and the degree of satisfaction can be seen on Figure 1.


Correlation between type of power and satisfaction

Figure 1. Correlation between type of power and satisfaction


No matter whether the leader is satisfied when using a specific type of power or not, it is in
his interest to have the most diverse possible arsenal of types of power. Going back to the
situational approach, it is possible that even the most unsatisfactory type of power is the most
adequate and advisable one in a given moment. The pursuit of power is innate to the
successful leader. What is important is that whenever he has it, he must be able to decide
when and in what manner to use it.



Power in its essence is dynamical. It exists only when there is an interaction between a leader
and his followers. During the course of this interaction, it undergoes constant changes. On the
one hand, the followers are those responsible for increasing or limiting the power of the
leader, especially when it pertains to power based on the personal qualities of the leader. On
the other hand, the more a leader adequately and skillfully uses his power, the more it grows
(French R, Rayner C, Rees G, Rumbles S, 2011).

There is yet another correlation. Followers have a tendency, whenever possible, to prefer a
leader with a style and ideas of exerting power according to their own necessities. D. Barber
conducted a study on the choice of presidents in the USA while trying to identify regular
patterns in the voters’ preferences (Thorp, 1993).

He found a cyclical pattern in the nation’s preferences. Apparently, every time Americans chose someone with a different approach from the one of their former president. If the former president was “heavy-handed”, exerted all the power at his disposal and was not willing to compromise, then the next one would be a balanced, conformist-orientated expert.  Later, the choice of another authoritarian president was made and so on. This cycle, as concluded by Barber, was an expression of the way the citizens’ necessities changed during the different mandates of their presidents. (Todorova, 1995).

E. Ericson described another interesting correlation between leaders and followers. He
studied the biographies of A. Hitler, M. Luther and M. Gandhi and found that the successful
leader is the projection of his followers. The leader apparently does not have to be very
different from his followers; on the contrary, he must have a lot in common with them. The
more overt he is in showing these similarities, the more successful and powerful he becomes.



 Power is applying certain impact in order to provoke specific behavior with the goal of
executing a given task.
 Depending on the context, power may be social (informal groups) or formal (within
the limits of a specific post and organization).
 There is a clearly defined connection between leadership and power. Power is a trait
that belongs to leadership – every leader has power. But power does not mean
leadership – the power vested in someone does not make him automatically a leader.
 Motivation and manipulation are a function of the leader’s power as well as his
competences in exercising it.
 A leader may earn a certain type of power based on his personal qualities. It may be
expert, referent, legitimate, reward or coercive.



Cutting, T. (2008) Grabbing Project Management.
French, R., Rayner, C., Rees, G., Rumbles, S. (2011) Organizational Behavior, United Kingdom.
Giddens, A. (1997) Sociology, London.
Gerber, J., Macionis J., Linda, M. (2003) Sociology (7th Canadian ed.), Toronto.
Riggio, R. (2003) Industrial / Organizational Psychology, New Jersey.
Thorp, T. R. (1993) Political Science, State University of New York.




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