The Role of Power in Effective Leadership

Who do you think of, if you think about effective leadership? Photo by Skitterphoto.

Power is simply the ability to cause change, produce effect on others or potentially influence others. Power can be affected, influenced and imposed by and on various individuals but for the purpose of this paper, we will be sticking to the power relationship between a leader and his followers. John French and Bertram Raven, two American scholars attempted to determine the sources of power used by leaders in influencing others; organizational power (legitimate, reward, coercive) and personal power (expert and referent). Various past leaders have chosen different strategies to execute their power and get the job done, some successful and some unsuccessful. For example, various American presidents with immense power have chosen different strategies to execute the plans they had for the country. For example, when comparing President Carter to President Obama, two different Presidents from different eras, have used different methods to achieve their goals. Although President Carter had a great vision for the country, he was unable to use his power and influence to bring the various organizations in the country to support his goal. On the flip side, President Obama, who didn’t have the greatest ratings and acceptance was able to use his charisma and charm to bring together a great majority of the opposition to achieve some of his vision for the country. 

Barack Obama, once the most powerful man on earth as president of the United States. Now this role is taken over by another man who uses power very… differently (photo by Daniel McDonald).

Power is a function of a relationship because it belongs to not only the leader, but also to the followers and the situation. The way a leader uses his power, through behavior and other actions has an influence on the outcome of the followers and the individuals the power covers. Great leaders have the vision to achieve large scale ideas that they dream of accomplishing, and they also have the personal power to enact it. Great leaders know that to increase their effectiveness, they must develop their personal power. In the past, leaders had the ability to control their followers solely by directing them on the basis of authority associated with the position, but in today’s society, this rarely works. As in today’s age, people are more informed about the happenings around and they are more likely to take a stand against a leader that they think is not working in their best interest. Therefore, a leader’s ability to increase his power is vital to the effectiveness of his leadership. The power of a leader can be improved by increasing the level of trust the workers have in his abilities. Increasing one’s own achievement and making them known establishes a higher organizational standard which followers can look up to and respect. As respect increases among the followers through a track record of accomplishments, the leader’s personal power increases in the organization. Failure of the leader to recognize the need for the development and the importance of personal power will most likely increase followers resistance to change or direction. A leader that is able to enhance and improve his personal power will effectively accomplish set goals and tasks without relying on their job title. Studies have shown that powerful leaders tend to rely on personal power rather than their job title or credentials when it comes to inspiring actions or raising confidence in followers.  

A leader who looks to nurturing and protecting the skills of his followers is laying the foundation and solidifying his status while growing his personal power. Empowering followers takes the pressure of the boss while allowing him to make strategic decisions evaluate progress. Empowering leaders seek to share power, to give it away, rather than hold unto the power. They recognize and reward people for their accomplishments, contributions, and ideas. They encourage participation, solicit input, and involve people in decisions, giving credit to those who have earned it. They reward people who generate the greatest impact toward organizational goals, rewarding results rather than processes. A good leader acts more like a colleague than a boss, bear in mind this type of leadership is more effective in certain regions/ countries of the world than others. This is because of the power distance gap present in the society. This kind of leadership would be hard to implement in a society with a high-power distance between the boss and his followers. This is because culture and society have gotten used to the all imposing boss who controls and supersedes all activities with the followers as basically “YES MEN”. On the flip side, a society with a low power distance will find this type of leadership more effective with better communication between the management and the staff. A leader working like a colleague will rely more on influence, respect and relationship to work with his employees. By using this strategy, the leader can influence rather than order people to accomplish his goals. This allows the workers to see the hard work and dedication first hand put in by the leader and thus understand that they are all working towards the same goal. Studies show that people will work more effectively if they feel that they are part of a project or a bigger dream and not just helping someone accomplish his dream. Leaders who use power effectively care about people’s feelings and understand that individuals don’t like to be dominated and everyone need some personal power to function properly in an organization.

The ‘pawns of society’ can become more powerful when given a crown (photo by Pixabay).

In 1960, David McClelland, an American psychologist proposed a model called ‘’The need theory’’, which explains the needs and motivation required by employees to function properly in a work place. This states that employees have certain needs that must be met in order to be motivated to perform. A powerful leader knows that to increase his power and effectivity in his environment, he must settle the wants and requirements of his followers. The theory states that the three needs required are achievement, affiliation and power. The need for achievement indicates the desire to learn and master new skills to improve their accomplishments. This gives the worker a sense of direction knowing that the company is actively interested in his or her growth and is not just milking them dry. The need for affiliation is the desire to feel involved and belong within a certain social group, this creates a sense of belonging and togetherness knowing that you are loved and accepted. The need for power is the desire for an individual to be in charge. This need is the trickiest as most leaders create an environment where the workers create a competition for power, more of a “Win/Lose” mentality, where one must win and another loose to gain the most power among the workers. This creates distrust among the workers and leads to inefficiency because everyone is working for themselves and against one another. The leader must create an environment where power is properly distributed, and the all workers can work hand in hand to establish a common goal. A powerful leader understands that one of his jobs is to satisfy these needs according to his strengths which makes his job easier and which creates an effective working environment.

The unethical use of power by a leader can have an instant impact in obtaining a goal in an organization but over the long run this behaviour will cause the leader to become detrimental to the organization and force the organization to move against him or her thus reducing power. For example, if a leader uses his power to get some unethical policies passed or makes his workers carry out un-company like behaviours, then trust will be quickly lost in the leader. A leader with an abrasive personality, often of high intelligence, acts as a perfectionist, pushing hard toward accomplishments, consistently producing a superior job but not working well with others, usually fails to motivate followers. These type leaders often fail to live up to their potential, rarely rise very high in organizations, and have trouble delegating or empowering others. A leader should discourage abrasive behaviours in the company and encourage working together and promote positive vibes as this will lead to the accomplishment of set goals.

Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery.

It’s kind of a cliché nowadays when people say, “with great power comes great responsibility”, however true. A leader who has obtained an immense amount of power must be careful that he conducts himself in such a way that the power is not misused. Followers are quick to point out any misuse of power and although they might not have much influence on the boss’s position, this can lead to mistrust between management and workers. In conclusion, leaders who work to enhance personal power, persuasiveness and expertise will enhance their effectiveness. Powerful leaders learn to exercise their power and authority over others through wisdom and they avoid dominating them. They rely on influence and there is a mutual respect between the leader and his followers. Effective leaders increase their personal power by empowering people around them and catering to the fundamental needs of the people, like achievement, affiliation and power. Power is volatile and must be treated with care. The leader who holds the power should make sure that his personal power is used as a force for good and development.

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Published by Victor Ogunmodede

Founder of

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