Power in Two Words: “Not Leadership”

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If you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge advocate of leadership.

It creates value.

It is a force multiplier.

It improves cohesion.

But, contrary to popular misconception…

Power is not leadership.

Leadership, I mean “good” leadership, includes a component of ethics where power is more often a tool wielded to change behavior at whatever cost.

Let’s take an opportunity to examine the relationship of leadership with power and the often post hoc, self-serving narrative people use to justify the misuse of power and to suggest how good leadership, though harder, is a better behavior in the long run.

Power defined

So what does the scholarship say?

Not surprisingly, power exists on a spectrum of control between simple influence to complete control:

“Power is the capacity to influence another person or group to accept one’s own idea’s or plans.”[1]

Power is a dynamic social interaction:

“The key to understanding power is to understand the relationship of the power holder to the person over whom the power is used, called the A (power) – B (the influenced).  First, A must have some form of power.  But, in order for the power to be effective, B must recognize and accept the quality of A’s power.” [2]

As I review the scholarship on power, I realize that it is very close in concept to my definition of leadership from a previous posting:

Leadership is a confluence of two social roles.

  • The follower surrenders some aspect of autonomy.
  • The leader fills the vacuum and assumes authority over a follower.

To reconcile my definition with power, I’ll refine it later in this posting.

Sources of power

In a 1959 study by social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, power was divided into 5 forms (and, in 1965, into 6 forms):

  1. Coercion
  2. Reward
  3. Legitimacy
  4. Expert
  5. Referent
  6. Informational

We can endlessly discuss the completeness or nuances of the list, but it is a useful embarkation point for discussion.

Coercion is A’s use of force to influence or change B’s behavior. If you think back to that jerk boss that everyone has had, the primary tool was coercion.  In their mind they were “keeping everyone on their toes”.  That boss uses the stick to threaten, prod, or hit.  The only question is how much abuse will everyone take? On the extreme end you’ll find your favorite dictator.  Kim Jong-un (김정은) is, ironically, hailed as “The Supreme Leader”.  A dictator’s stick isn’t a fine or public ridicule, but torture or death.

Reward is A’s authority to reward B’s behavior. The reward power system can include a physical or monetary award.  But more subtly, it can also include the gatekeepers who can open (or hide) opportunities. A more socially acceptable mechanism might be in the form of a mentor.

Legitimacy is also known as positional authority and, in my opinion, is the most common understanding of power in business.  The position of a person in an organization defines the legitimate power and the authority that is delegated to the person in the position.  Accoutrements of power may also be associated with the authority: the big corner office, uniforms, robes, medals, etc. Company executives often have a legal authority subsequent to their position as they have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders.

Expert power is associated with a person’s skills or specialized/technical knowledge that gives better insight, understanding, and judgement.  A corporate tax lawyer or architect would be good examples. Power of the expert encompasses not only the specialized abilities, but the amount of effort, time, and money to acquire the high level of skill or knowledge.

Referent is the ability to attract and hold loyal followers.  The ability could be based on charisma, interpersonal skills, or an ideology that compels its followers. The extreme negative example of could be cult leaders.  The charisma pulls followers in, but like the Hotel California, people can come in, but the cult ideology makes it difficult to leave.  The cult traits include early and complete group acceptance (the carrot for the disenfranchised), heavy social pressure to conform, complete surrender to the authority, and isolation from outside social contact and information.

Toko (1)Informational is A’s control over B’s knowledge of critical or scarce information.  The power is transitive and the power is lost when the information is provided. In the Netherlands, there are cultural influences from the former colony of Indonesia.  Examples exist in the food culture and vocabulary.  You’ll sometimes see the Indonesian word “toko” which translates as store.  Dutch people may apply it to mean territory – “This is my toko” meaning area of responsibility. I often witnesses a behavior I termed “tokoism”.  Europe, in general, has very generous vacation policies.  An employee can conceivably be out of the office for 3 to 6 weeks of vacation.  In my experience it was rare to find employees cross-trained into other jobs as back-ups or for the purpose of redundancy.  Absent employees normally locked up their files or kept key institutional knowledge locked up behind password protected directories.  Information key to an employee’s function would be unavailable to anyone else until the employee’s return. Nobody could get into their toko unless they were there.  I found it to be commonly accepted and viewed as a form of job protection.

Relationship of leadership to power

People who wield power are not automatically leaders.  There is the confusion issue I’ve mentioned before because they occupy a leadership position, the assumption is that they are leaders.  My interpretation is that they are in a position of power until they prove they are leaders.

As I’ve pondered this over the years, I have come to view leadership as a subset of power.  Leadership is a way of expressing power.

The differentiation between power and leadership comes from the motivation of the power broker.  Is the goal of the power self-oriented or work related?[3]

The authority of position, Legitimacy, is the starting place, the position with the responsibility and formal authority to accomplish something (a task or mission) through the motivation and resources of your subordinates.

Leadership may draw from all 6 of the power sources in a limited, administrative manner.  For example, negative behavior may be discouraged through punishment (a coercive tool) such as fines or suspensions.

The authority of position is the same as Legitimacy defined above.  This is the starting place, the position with the responsibility to accomplish something (a task or mission) through the motivation and resources of your subordinates.

Keeping the power abuse in check

There are two important safeguards that prevent or mitigate power abuses: transparency and accountability.  I am positive that if you look back to your past experience with a terrible boss, their tactics were to limit transparency and convince the subordinates that they were the final authority.

Transparency is an important feature to leadership because the stakeholders will always want to confirm that everything is done in a fair manner.  For example, leadership power derived from the punishment (coercion), reward, or access to information can be acceptable if the process is perceived to be consistent, fair, and judicious.

The final boundary may be the most important, accountability.  The source of accountability may come from several sources: social mores, ethical considerations, legal or regulatory injunctions, or censure from higher levels of authority (senior executives, boards, shareholders, etc.).

For example, dictators and cults will disrupt transparency and accountability as much as possible.  Transparency is defeated by sequestering the population from outside information that would otherwise refute the source of their power.  They preemptively claim there exists no higher levels of authority through raw violence, divine rights of rule, or divine providence.  In other words, object and you die or, object and you’ll suffer eternally.


We cannot avoid the fact that leadership is part of the power game.  I am always pressing on a specific definition leadership.  In the absence of a definition, everyone accepts a sloppy application of power as leadership regardless of the ethical consideration or long-term destruction (value, morale, continuity, etc.).

So I have to modify my previous definition of leadership to:

Leadership is a confluence of two social roles.

  • The follower surrenders to some authority (power source as defined above).
  • The leader fills the vacuum and assumes ethical and accountable authority over a follower.

I am a leadership purist.  I think responsible, deliberate leadership is the best strategy for dealing with people in any organization.  But, we cannot avoid the accumulation of power and how it is used.  It is like electricity and needs to be understood.  It can be a great source of progress, or it can cause great injury.

As leaders, we need to maintain a check on the covert accumulation of power and prevent self-serving abuses.  It is through the combination of transparency and accountability that we govern the corruption of power.

So, here’s what got me started on this whole topic…

There’s this thing that’s been going around LinkedIn and the Harvard Business Review since 2013.  I’m not going to link to it because I’m tired of seeing it in my newsfeed and I refuse to promulgate it to anyone else.  The question posed is “How do you define power in one or two words?”  If I have the counter right, there have been over 17,000 responses… mostly with people saying whatever Wikipedia says or a variation.

But, every time I see it, the response I shout in my brain is:
Not leadership!

And that’s an important message to share in two words.


Kenneth Wrede


[1] “Power and Organization Development”, Larry E. Greiner and Virginia Schein, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1988

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_(social_and_political)

[3] “Power and Organization Development”, Larry E. Greiner and Virginia Schein, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1988












About Ken Wrede
Kenneth Wrede

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