Leaders & Power

Power is something which gives us the ability to influence or direct other people. It is an invisible but powerful force in our lives and our organizations. I have worked for supervisors who use their power to produce fear and for others who wield it in ways that makes me want to perform my best. We can learn a lot about others based on how they use (or don’t use) power.

There are two types of power that occur as we interact with others.

Positional Power is the use of your authority over someone to get something done. This type of power is something you exert over others. Positional power is given to a person as a result of their position (your boss at work can use his position to make you do things), the ability to give out rewards (a coach who awards hard working players with more playing time) or it can also be applied in a coercive way (Kim Jong-un, the despotic ruler of North Korea uses coercive power to ensure follows do as he says).  As an example, when parents tell our children ‘because I said so’ they are using our positional power to make something happen (or stop something from occurring!). A simple way to visualize positional power is with the image of you pointing your finger at another person – this simple gesture indicates your positional power and authority over another person.

Personal Power is when your authority is given to you by others. It is typically given because of the expertise or competence that a person possesses (we typically extend this trust to our medical doctor) or by our personal identification or liking of a person (few people personally knew Nelson Mandela but he was liked by almost everyone). Personal power is bestowed upon us by others and gives us the ability to accomplish something because others allow us to do so. Instead of us pointing a finger at others, the image for this style of power has others pointing a finger at us and asking for our involvement or expertise. When your child texts you and asks you for advice they are bestowing personal power as they are indicating that they respect and trust your judgement.

Effective use of positional and personal power is situational and we must learn when to use each one. At times, it is appropriate for parents to request their children to do something ‘because they said so’ (positional). In contrast, Pope Francis appears to believe that he can accomplish the goals of the Catholic Church by allowing others to give him power (personal).

There are also times when we can inappropriately use power. Can you recall a social conversation with someone who keeps trying to impress others by telling all about their accomplishments? These people are inappropriately trying to remind you that they deserve positional power (and it usually backfires). As well, an over-reliance of personal power will not be effective when you are in situations when no one knows you. Personal power is something which is earned over time.

Effective leaders understand the difference between positional and personal power. Furthermore, they know when to use each of them in order to accomplish their goals. I encourage you to evaluate your use of power. Which of these styles do you use more often? Which style needs improvement? Which do you tend to use inappropriately?

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Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email: jeff@jeffsuderman.com


How Leaders, Followers & Power Work Together (or Not!)

This week’s guest post is from Dustin J. Knutson. He holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University (VA) and lives and works with his wife and two daughters as an expatriate in the Middle East.


What kind of leader are you?

What kind of power do you have and how do you use it to influence?

What leadership environment do you create for others?

Understanding the answers to these three simple questions will equip you to lead more knowledgeably and more effectively!

What Kind of Leader Are You?
“Some people are leaders because of their formal position in an organization, whereas others are leaders because of the way other group members respond to them. These two forms of leadership are called assigned leadership and emergent leadership” (Northouse).

What Kind of Power Do You Have?
“Position power is the power a person derives from a particular office or rank in a formal organizational system. It is the influence capacity a leader derives from having higher status than the followers… Personal power is the influence capacity a person derives from being seen by followers as likable and knowledgeable” (Northouse).

What Kind of Leadership Environment Do You Create?
As you combine the two ideas above, your leadership type and power dynamic blend to create different working environments for followers. Think of these as the three different environments that you can create for others to work in.

  1. Compliant but Not Necessarily Motivated
    The first environment is where assigned leaders only utilize position power and thus create compliant followers. Followers are not necessarily motivated but do what they are told because of rank and status or the threat of rewards or punishment. Followers led by these types of leaders will typically only do the bare minimum. Morale can be low.
  2. Motivated by Charisma
    The second environment is where emergent leaders exhibit personal power to persuade followers to accomplish a task without any formal authority. Followers are typically motivated by the leader’s vision and contagious qualities. Individuals feel drawn to follow emergent leaders regardless of their rank or status. Assigned leaders who use only position power may feel threatened by the informal leadership of emergent leaders; however, these emergent leaders inspire innovation, teamwork, and positive corporate culture.
  3. Motivated and Committed
    The third environment is where assigned leaders are also emergent leaders. These leaders selective use position power only when needed or when personal power isn’t enough. They rely on their personal power to create a motivated following and are most effective when followers are asked or persuaded to act rather than told what to do. Followers of these leaders typically overachieve more often. They act both out of respect for the position of authority of their leader and because they feel led rather than managed.

Who would you name in your organization that you would consider an assigned leaders but not an emergent leader? Vice versa? Both? Consider why, and then examine those qualities in yourself.

What category would your followers place you in?

Are you leading and following as effectively as you could be? Why?

If you’d like to increase your personal power and emergent leadership, try courageously asking your followers for honest feedback. Ask them to provide you with their insights about leadership styles or traits they prefer, or would like to see more of in you. Then consider the feedback, communicate the changes you’re willing and committed to make, follow through, and follow up. While difficult, you’ll be glad you did. You’ll likely become more influential and powerful as a result – but for all the right reasons!


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman, E-mail: jeff@jeffsuderman.com.


Northouse, P. (2007). Leadership: theory and practice. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.