3.4 Power and Leadership

Using power correctly to influence the best out of all individuals and reach the top. Image by Joshua Earle “man sitting on gray rock while staring at white clouds” From: https://unsplash.com/photos/Dwheufds6kQ

As mentioned previously at the beginning of the chapter, and in chapter one, the main ability that leaders have is the ability to influence. Regardless if the leader is autocratic or alaissez-faire, he or she must possess the ability to influence subordinates to follow the vision, mission, and values of the company. Influence is the ability to have an effect on a person or situation.  Within an organizational structure, the ability to influence is to have an effect on an individual, group, organization, or social level. Within institutions, the amount of influence that leaders have or processes usually depends on the power they wield within the firm.

Discussing power within an operation may seem like a malicious idea, especially with one person having all of the power.  This could be detrimental,.   However, in the context of an organization, the ability to have power can be beneficial for the leader and the subordinates. Power within an organizational context is the ability to influence someone to get something done that needs to be done. According to Pfeffer, power plays a major role in a person’s career success, salary level, and job performance[12]. Researchers have defined five primary sources of power within organizations[13]:

  • Expert Power
  • Referent Power
  • Legitimate Power
  • Reward Power
  • Coercive Power

The most effective influence, and most ethically grounded power is expert power.  It relies on the leader’s ability to have extensive knowledge in one or more areas within the learning organization. An example of this would be a professor who also has a wealth of experience within administration or in multiple faculties (i.e. earth sciences, and communication). This lends a level of expertise to take control of problems in multiple areas and find solutions to these problems. Commonly, with expert power is referent power, which is the ability for a leader to have influence through charisma and admiration from peers. That same professor who found solutions to problems and created positive changes would be regarded with reverence within a faculty.

Expert and referent power tend to operate on the emotional level, applying the concepts of ‘leading by example’. If this does not seem to have an effect and common ground cannot be reached, using legitimate power may be a solution. Legitimate power are  the leaders who uses their positions in an organization to influence decisions. Ideally, this is not desired, but someone might have to say ‘I’m the CEO and this decision is final,’ especially when faced with a tough decision where no common ground can be reached.

Reward and coercive power come closer to the bottom of the spectrum, as it moves away from an emotional level, and uses physical things to influence others. Reward power is a leader’s ability to influence rewards within an organization (i.e. pay raises, benefits, and promotions). Reward power can create both positive and negative effects within a company.  For example, a promotion to offer a pay raise to the individual who can sell the most widgets may lead to increased productivity to get the raise, but cut corners in the world of morality and ethics. If reward power is going to be used, it must be used within the confines of an organization’s code of ethics.  Coercive power, or the ability to lead a team through threatening of negative outcomes[13] is the least ethically-grounded influence. This would be a last resort if there was a subordinate who was completely unqualified and morally unjust in her or his own right.  Coercive power to radically change the individual, and if change doesn’t happen, dire consequences would be implemented.

Regardless of the power structure, it must fall within the organizational context it is presented in. Within a learning organization, the main goal is to facilitate learning and provide a space where analysis and critical thinking can be expanded upon. It appears that expert and referent power within a learning organization are the most beneficial in terms of using control to foster learning to students, as an example. The students see the expert and referent authority, but they also have the ability to be critical on certain concepts (especially in the humanities).

Review Questions:

  1. What are the five types of organizational power?
  2. What type of organizational power do you feel are important to effectively lead an organization?


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Leadership and Management in Learning Organizations Copyright © by Clayton Smith; Carson Babich; and Mark Lubrick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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