The 6 Leadership Power Bases


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“Power Bases” – what are they, really? You see, one of the biggest sources of strength for a leader lies in knowing where they draw their power from.

Whether they admit it or not, being in a position of power is a key desire of leaders and executives who rise to the top.

While coaching leaders and executives, the question is never about “Do they have power?,” but more about “Do they know how to exercise their power?”

This is where understanding “Power Bases” becomes useful as a coaching tool.

Power Bases are the methods that leaders use to influence their co-workers to do things that they might otherwise not choose to do.

In 1959, social psychologists French and Raven identified five bases of interpersonal power manifested by leaders in positions of authority. They subsequently added a sixth power base. Leaders manifest their power using one or more of these power bases.

Coaches can use this tool to draw a leader’s awareness to how they influence others. This also opens up alternatives they might have not considered earlier.

The 6 Power Bases by French and Raven

1. Legitimate Power

This is the leader’s power to get others to comply purely based on their position. In a hierarchical organization, the executives at the top of the organization chart have legitimate power to demand compliance from others.

Although employees may comply based on legitimate power, they might not do so with a sense of cooperation and commitment.

2. Reward Power

This is a leader’s ability to yield power by compensating their employees for compliance. Leaders in this case control a desired outcome for their employee. Such as recognition, extra holidays, a bonus or a promotion.

When used flexibly, reward power can prove to be a strong motivator for employees. However, if used rigidly, employees may be tempted to focus solely on the extrinsic rewards. They may forget about the intrinsic motivation around their jobs.

3. Coercive Power

A leader who draws on their employee’s compliance through force is said to have coercive power. This could be economic, social, emotional, political or physical.

Leaders who are brutally honest will find at least a few occasions where they had to use threats either direct or indirect to get work done.

4. Informational Power

A leader who has control over critical information that others need, is said to possess informational power. The offer to share it or the potential threat to withhold that information gives a leader power.

However, this form of power dissipates immediately once the information is shared with another.

5. Referent Power

Referent power is a leader’s ability to lead with trust and by example. If the leader is perceived to be respected, and attractive by his employees, he is considered to have a high degree of referent power.

The concept of empowerment heavily relies on referent power. Since it takes more time to develop, it proves most effective for organizations where leaders have a workforce with medium to low turnover.

6. Expert Power

Expert power relies on a leader’s specialized knowledge, domain expertise or skill-set. Interestingly an employee with greater knowledge might have higher expert power when it comes to a particular task.

Expert power diminishes as a leader starts sharing their knowledge with their employees. Fearing this, leaders sometimes intentionally choose not to share their knowledge base with employees.

While this increases the leader’s perceived power, it weakens the organization’s effectiveness over time.

It’s important to observe here that while the first four power bases are more positional –  they depend on the role of a leader within an organization.

The next two power bases (referent and expert) are more personal. They stay with the leader irrespective of the organization. Hence are also easily transferable.

The personal power bases (expert and referent power) are also the most effective in building compliance and commitment for getting something done.

Coaching Leaders Through Their Power Bases

French and Raven’s interpersonal power bases give you a great framework to coach leaders to lead more effectively. In most cases, this conversation is sparked based on feedback leaders receive in their 360 assessment.

By helping leaders understand the 6 power bases, you will draw their awareness towards two key questions:

1. How do they exercise their power right now?
2. What kind of power would they like to develop more of?

Understanding this helps them grow in their relationships with employees, peers, and superiors at work.

Step By Step Process To Coach Leaders On Their Power Bases

1. Start off by drawing the 6 power bases, and explain the significance of each to your client.

2. Ask them which power bases do they use most often? (get them to pick one or two).

3. Invite them to think of a time when they had used it effectively.

4. Dig deeper on how much of this power base do they use in their relationships with:

– Their juniors;
– Their peers;
– Their superiors.

5. Can they recollect instances when this form of power hadn’t worked?

6. What power bases would they like to use more often to become a better leader?

7. What are they learning about their relationship with power through this process?

8. Is there a dominant power base in their organization or team? How is it affecting their overall company culture?

From Insight To Action

A leader’s ultimate source of power comes from how effectively they are able to influence their team. By the end of this reflective conversation on power, you want your client to leave with a few development areas that increase their effectiveness as a leader.

It is always more valuable to help your client develop their personal power bases so they can have the largest impact on their co-workers and teams irrespective of which organization they work for.

About The Author

Siddharth Anantharam

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Siddharth is a leadership coach, community builder, TEDx speaker, and an eternal seeker who is dedicated to helping people become the person they most want to be. He is a senior practitioner of the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC) and a Professional Certified Coach by the International Coaching Federation (ICF).
As a leadership coach, he supports individuals, teams, and companies solve their most important challenges by tapping into their intuitive wisdom. He is a head coach for all certifications at Evercoach and has held multiple leadership roles at Mindvalley.

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