Legitimate power refers to power that a person in leadership holds as a result of an established institutional hierarchy, such as a manager over their employees or a corporal over a private in the military.
Scholars define it as below:
“[Legitimate power] is authority that comes with a position and is therefore ascribed. The person who fills the position is given the “legitimate” power of authority to make certain decisions.” (Savage & Savage, 2010, p. 24)1
“Legitimate power is vested in the position that the leader holds within the organization, and is obtained on the day that the leader assumes this official leadership role.” (Fiore, 2004, p. 11)2
This type of power was first defined by French and Raven’s (French, Raven & Cartwright, 1959)3 famous taxonomy of the bases of power for leadership. It is one of five ‘bases of power’, alongside reward, coercive, expert, and referent power.
It is seen as beneficial for establishing the authority of the holder within an institution, especially early on in their tenure4,5. However, its influence is often short-lived if the people under their command start to lose trust or respect in the leader1,2,6. As a result, it’s generally seen as a base of power that needs to be backed-up by other forms of power.
Legitimate Power Examples
1. The Presidency of the United States
The Presidency of the United States holds legitimate authority. As the head of state, the president holds a position granted through a democratic electoral process.
This role provides the president with the authority to pass executive orders, negotiate international agreements, and command the military, among other responsibilities. It is a legal status recognized by the nation’s citizens and by other nations, and it is subject to the checks and balances established in the U.S. Constitution.
But note that, as with most situations, the legitimate authority erodes if the president doesn’t do his job well and doesn’t begin to gain referent power from the people. Without another base of power that will earn them respect and trust, the president will likely be turfed out in the next election.
2. The Principal of a School
The principal of a school represents legitimate power in education1,7. He or she has the authority to manage the school, make decisions about educational policies, disciplinary measures, and oversee the day-to-day activities of the school, based on the position they hold.
The principal’s power is recognized by the teachers, students, and parents alike as they admister the rules and guidelines set by the school district. This power is given to the principal through the structure of the education system, which sees this position as necessary for the efficient functioning of the school.
If she fails to demonstrate her expert or referent power, she may become disliked and disrespected by her superiors, but so long as she holds the legitimate position, the teachers will begrudgingly follow her commands.
3. Chief Executive Officer of a Corporation
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation wields legitimate power. This leader is appointed by a board of directors to oversee the day-to-day operations of the company, make high-level decisions, and guide the company towards its strategic objectives.
Through the legitimate power invested in the CEO, they have the authority to make wide-ranging decisions, shape the culture of the company, and determine the strategic direction of the organization. Their power is recognized by all employees and stakeholders within that organization.
However, the full extent of the CEO’s effectiveness does not rely solely on her legitimate power. If she doesn’t earn the respect of her employees through expert or referent power, she might see decreased productivity and high turnover rates.
4. Judge in a Court of Law
A judge in a court of law exercises legitimate authority. They are vested with the authority to make decisions on legal matters within their jurisdiction, issue judgments, and impose penalties or punishments.
They have the capacity to interpret and apply the law, resolve disputes, and make decisions that can significantly impact the lives of individuals, corporations, and communities. Their power is recognized and respected within the legal system and by the public more broadly.
5. Police Officer
A police officer is an example of legitimate power as they are given the authority by the government to uphold the law and maintain order.
On a daily basis, an officer has the power to enforce laws, make arrests, issue citations, and occasionally to use force if necessary. This power is granted to them through their role and is typically symbolized by a badge, uniform, or other visible signs of authority.
However, for a police officer to be truly effective in their role, they also need to earn the respect and trust of the community they serve If they lose this, they could face difficulties in their job, despite the legitimate power that their position holds.
- President of a Country
- Prime Minister
- Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Chief Operating Officer (COO)
- Superintendent of Schools
- University President
- Police Chief
- General in the Military
- Bishop in a Church
- Speaker of the House (Legislative)
- Chief Justice
- Director of a Government Agency
- Head of State
- Senate Majority Leader
- School Principal
- Hospital Administrator
- Fire Chief
- Team Manager in Sports
- Editor-in-Chief of a Media Outlet
- Airline Pilot
- Teacher in a Classroom
Benefits and Limitations of Legitimate Power
For example, without clear ranks within the military, soldiers will not know who to follow in dangerous situations. They need to have someone who is the agreed-upon leader and decision-maker. A clear hierarchy is necessary7.
Furthermore, it tends to give the person assigned power a short-term authority, allowing them to establish their position on the hierarchy. As Savage and Savage (2010, p. 24)1 argue, most people are “temporarily willing to submit to the legitimate authority.”
However, this power is, generally, very much temporary. As Fiore (2004, p. 12)2 argues, it “will quickly dissolve if the leader fails to utilize other power sources.” This is because right-thinking people will “resist blindly following the leadership of others” (Savage & Savage, 2010)1 and seek to follow people they genuinely respect and admire.
So, overall, people with legitimate authority “are at great risk of losing the respect of subordinates and the ability to influence subordinates’ behaviors” (Fiore, 2004, p. 12)2 without quickly gaining authority from others.
Other Types of Power
According to French and Raven (French, Raven & Cartwright, 1959)3, there are five main sources of power that a leader can have. Each type has a different source, and each has its own unique features, pros, and cons.
Most literature highlights that expert and referent power are ideal because they are longstanding and can compel followers to respect and trust the leader1,2,4. However, legitimate, reward, and even coercive power have their own strengths and values.
See below for all five ‘bases of power’ from French and Raven3:
|Base of Power||Definition||Features|
|Legitimate Power||Derived from a position of authority within a hierarchy, such as a manager’s power over employees.||Respect for this leader is often short-lived if not complemented by other types of power.|
|Reward Power||Power is sustained through distribution of rewards or positive incentives to others, encouraging certain behaviors.||Highly effective if rewards align with desires; can wane in influence over time (extinction); can unintentionally decrease intrinsic desire.|
|Coercive Power||Derived from the ability to punish or threaten others to encourage compliance or change behavior.||Can be highly effective but leads to fear, sense of alienation, and resentment.|
|Expert Power||Arises from possessing knowledge or expertise in a particular area, which others respect or rely on.||Respected when transparency is present; leaders spend less time monitoring employee performance, is most effective when paired with referent power.|
|Referent Power||Rooted in personal characteristics or interpersonal relationships that inspire admiration, respect, or emulation from others.||Garners commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty from followers. Less monitoring or micromanaging required.|
 Savage, T. V., & Savage, M. K. (2010). Successful Classroom Management and Discipline: Teaching Self-Control and Responsibility. SAGE Publications.
 Fiore, D. J. (2004). Introduction to Educational Administration: Standards, Theories, and Practice. Eye On Education.
 French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7(311-320), 1.
 Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice. SAGE Publications.
 Harris, O. J., & Hartman, S. J. (2001). Organizational Behavior. Best Business Books.
 Lyngstad, I. (2017). Legitimate, expert and referent power in physical education. Sport, education and society, 22(8), 932-942. (Source)
 Reid, L. F., & Kawash, J. (2017). Let’s talk about power: How teacher use of power shapes relationships and learning. Papers on postsecondary learning and teaching, 2, 34-41. (Source)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]