Referent power refers to the power of a leader that is based in interpersonal relationships, mutual respect and admiration, and an emotional connection.
Savage & Savage (2010) define referent power below:
“[Referent power] refers to individuals who have desirable values and personal qualities. When certain individuals are perceived as trustworthy, ethical, caring, and interested in our welfare, we are willing to give them some authority.” (p. 29)
This is one of five sources of power proposed by French and Raven (1959) and remains one of the most respected types of power a leader can wield to this day.
A leader with referent power is often found to be able to lead with less coercion and inspire greater motivation and self-drive in followers than leaders who utilize the other types of power on the French and Raven taxonomy, such as reward, coercive, legitimate, or expert power.
Referent Power Examples
1. A Teacher with Strong Rapport
Traits: Admirability, Genuine Concern, Followers’ Desire for Approval
A teacher who has a strong rapport with their students might be considered to have referent power.
The students, admiring the teacher’s approachable nature and genuine concern for their success, are more inclined to be attentive in class and follow the guidelines set by the teacher. As Harris and Hartman (2001, p. 144) argues, followers (in this case, students), often attempt to “maintain the approval of the referent person” (Harris & Hartman, 2001) due to desire to be liked by this authority figure.
2. A Supportive Team Leader
Traits: Supportive, Respects Followers’ Opinions, Inclusive, Collaborative
A team leader who is supportive and respects the opinions of their team members can possess referent power.
The team appreciates the leader’s open and inclusive approach, which fosters a sense of belonging and loyalty among members. Through the leader’s encouraging demeanor, the team is motivated to collaborate and achieve their goals collectively.
Over time, the leader’s method of handling challenges and nurturing a positive team culture becomes a blueprint for other leaders aiming to create a conducive work environment.
3. A Charismatic Community Volunteer
Traits: Charisma, Leading by Example, Selflessness
Charisma is a key feature of the referent authority figure (Lyngstad, 2017). A charismatic community volunteer who tirelessly works for local causes may exhibit referent power.
The community admires the volunteer’s selflessness and dedication, which motivates others to also contribute their time and resources. The volunteer’s ability to mobilize people and create a sense of unity and purpose becomes a source of inspiration for many within the locality.
Their influence extends beyond their immediate tasks, showcasing how referent power can foster community engagement and collective action.
4. A Compassionate Healthcare Worker
Traits: Compassion, Trustworthiness
A compassionate healthcare worker who goes above and beyond to provide personalized care embodies referent power.
Patients and colleagues alike appreciate the healthcare worker’s empathetic and patient-centered approach, building a strong trust and respect for them. The healthcare worker’s demeanor sets a high standard of care within the facility, encouraging others to also adopt a more compassionate approach in their practice.
Through their actions, the healthcare worker demonstrates the positive ripple effect of referent power within healthcare settings.
5. A Motivating Fitness Trainer
Traits: Optimism, Inspiration
A fitness trainer who is exceptionally motivating and personable can exhibit referent power.
Clients are drawn to the trainer’s positive energy and personalized approach, which make them feel valued and understood. The trainer’s ability to inspire and encourage clients to push beyond their limits becomes a hallmark of their training sessions.
As Fiore (2004, p. 12) argues, referent leaders have “charisma or a personality that makes subordinates want to follow.”
Over time, other trainers and clients alike begin to emulate this motivating style, demonstrating the trainer’s referent power within the fitness community.
6. A Resourceful Project Manager
Traits: Calmness, Approachability, Collaborative
A resourceful project manager who navigates challenges with a calm and strategic demeanor may possess referent power.
Team members appreciate the manager’s ability to provide clear guidance and support, fostering a culture of respect and cooperation. Through the manager’s proactive and collaborative approach, the team is better equipped to meet project deadlines and maintain high-quality outputs.
The project manager’s style becomes a model for others within the organization, showcasing the ability of referent power to enhance project execution and team dynamics.
7. An Engaging Social Media Influencer
Traits: Authentic, Relatable, Honesty
An engaging social media influencer who creates authentic and relatable content can demonstrate referent power.
Followers are captivated by the influencer’s honesty and ability to connect on a personal level, fostering a loyal online community. The influencer’s recommendations and lifestyle choices often become trends among their audience, illustrating the sway of referent power in digital spaces.
Over time, the influencer’s approach to authenticity becomes a standard many others in the social media space strive to emulate, exemplifying the broader influence of referent power.
8. A Dedicated Environmental Advocate
Traits: Commitment, Conviction
A dedicated environmental advocate who passionately educates others about sustainable practices can exhibit referent power.
Community members are inspired by the advocate’s unwavering commitment and knowledgeable insights, which foster a growing local movement toward eco-friendliness. The advocate’s ability to galvanize collective action towards environmental issues showcases the extent of their referent power.
As more people adopt sustainable practices, the advocate’s influence becomes a cornerstone for environmental awareness and action within the community.
9. A Skilled and Humble Craftsman
Traits: Humility, Patience, Mentorship
A skilled and humble craftsman who shares his knowledge generously with apprentices and other craftsmen in the community embodies referent power.
His willingness to teach and support others, coupled with his exceptional skill, earns him the respect and admiration of his peers. Over time, his approach to mentorship and community-building becomes a cherished aspect of the local crafts scene, inspiring others to foster a similar spirit of generosity and collaboration.
The craftsman’s influence helps cultivate a vibrant and supportive community, demonstrating the positive effects of referent power.
10. An Innovative Small Business Owner
Traits: Morality, Trustworthiness
An innovative small business owner who prioritizes ethical practices and community engagement can possess referent power.
Local patrons and other business owners admire the innovative yet ethical approach, fostering a reputation of trustworthiness and community-centric business practices.
The business owner’s success, driven by their values and engagement with the community, serves as a model for others aspiring to balance profitability with ethical responsibility.
The ripple effect of the business owner’s referent power encourages a shift towards more ethical and community-focused business practices within the locale.
Real-Life Leaders with Referent Power
1. John F. Kennedy (JFK)
Traits: Inspiration, Energy
Harris & Hartman (2001, p. 114) argue that emotional appeal “appears to be part of the referent relationship.” John F. Kennedy had this in spades (Fiore, 2004; Harris & Hartman, 2001).
He was a charismatic figure whose youthful energy and eloquence captured the imagination and admiration of many Americans and people around the world. His inspirational speeches and forward-looking vision, encapsulated in phrases like “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” resonated deeply with 1960s America, fostering a sense of hope and national pride.
Through his speeches and optimistic nature, JFK was able to cultivate a strong emotional connection and loyalty among a broad spectrum of the nation, inspiring them to engage with civic life and work towards a better future.
2. Ronald Regan
Traits: Inspiration, Affability
On the other side of the political spectrum, Ronald Regan demonstrated his own referent authority with the nation (Harris & Hartman, 2001).
Often referred to as “The Great Communicator,” he had the ability to connect with Americans across different walks of life with his charismatic and comforting communication style. Like JFK, his optimistic vision of America, articulated through eloquent speeches and informal talks, resonated with many and created a sense of hope and pride during challenging times.
Additionally, his affable, confident demeanor and often humorous approach made him a relatable and admired figure, fostering a strong emotional bond with the public.
3. Martin Luther King Jr.
Traits: Charisma, Conviction, Principle
Martin Luther King Jr. exhibited referent power through his extraordinary ability to inspire and mobilize individuals in the pursuit of civil rights and social justice (Fiore, 2004; Harris & Hartman, 2001).
His eloquent speeches, grounded in themes of love, justice, and equality, resonated profoundly with people, creating a deep emotional connection and a shared vision for a better future.
King’s unyielding commitment to nonviolent resistance in the face of adversity also garnered immense respect and admiration, showcasing a model of dignified, principled leadership.
Through these attributes, Martin Luther King Jr. harnessed referent power to galvanize a mass movement for change, fostering a legacy of inspiration that continues to impact social justice initiatives today.
4. Mother Theresa
Traits: Selflessness, Humility, Compassion
Mother Teresa exhibited referent power (Fiore, 2004) through her selfless service to the poor and destitute, embodying a profound sense of compassion and humility that inspired admiration and respect worldwide.
Her simple yet profound dedication to alleviating suffering showcased a level of altruism and humanity that resonated deeply with individuals across diverse cultural and religious backgrounds.
Through her actions, she fostered a strong emotional connection with people, who were inspired by her unwavering commitment to the cause of service.
Mother Teresa’s referent power was manifested as she became a symbol of selfless love and service, inspiring countless individuals to contribute towards making the world a more compassionate place.
5. Mahatma Ghandi
Traits: Calmness, Charisma, Conviction
Mahatma Gandhi exhibited referent power through his unwavering commitment to non-violent resistance and his advocacy for social justice, which inspired individuals not only in India but around the world.
His humble lifestyle and his ability to empathize with the common people created a strong emotional connection, garnering respect and admiration from those he sought to lead.
Gandhi’s principled stance on civil disobedience and his charismatic appeal galvanized masses to participate in peaceful protests for freedom and equality.
Through these attributes, Gandhi’s referent power was instrumental in uniting diverse groups toward a common goal, establishing him as a revered leader and a global symbol of peaceful resistance and change.
How to Build Referent Power to Become an Effective Leader
Leaders with referent authority have a few shared traits that make followers “admire and wish to emulate” them (Harris & Hartman, 2001, p. 114). I’ve listed many above. Below, I’ll summarize some top traits that you might embrace to build up your referent authority:
|Personal Connection||Taking the time to learn and use individuals’ names, understanding their backgrounds, and showing genuine interest in their well-being (Northouse, 2010).|
|Respectful Communication||Avoiding sarcasm, derogatory remarks, or disrespectful language, and instead, fostering a culture of respect, open dialogue, and constructive feedback (Quinones-Gonzalez, 2022).|
|Fairness and Equity||Demonstrating fairness in decision-making, assessments, and recognitions, ensuring no favoritism, and that everyone’s contributions are valued equally (Savage & Savage, 2010).|
|Ethical Conduct||Upholding high moral and ethical standards in actions and decisions, which sets a positive example and builds trust among the group (Savage & Savage, 2010).|
|Empathy and Understanding||Showing empathy, understanding, and patience in interactions, making an effort to see situations from others’ perspectives (Reid & Kawash, 2017).|
|Inspirational Vision||Articulating a clear, positive, and inspirational vision that motivates individuals to strive towards common goals.|
|Humility||Demonstrating humility by acknowledging mistakes, being open to feedback, and crediting others for their contributions.|
|Consistency||Maintaining consistency in behavior, values, and principles, which cultivates a predictable and reassuring environment (Savage & Savage, 2010).|
|Approachability||Being accessible and approachable, creating an environment where individuals feel comfortable sharing concerns or ideas (Woo, 2017).|
Before you Go: Other Types of Power
To best understand referent power, we need to look at it in the context of the five bases of power proposed by John French and Bertram Raven (1959).
This model shows five ways in which people can gain and exercise power. Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses, although French and Raven (1959) along with others (Fiore, 2004) prioritize expert and referent power as the most useful and long-lasting bases of power that leaders should aspire toward:
|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 (Cal & Mallette, 2015) that inspire admiration, respect, or emulation from others.||Garners commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty from followers. Less monitoring or micromanaging required.|
Cal, A. M., & Mallette, L. A. (2015). Celebrity and the United Nations: Leadership and referent power of global film ambassadors. International Journal of Arts & Sciences, 8(5), 415.
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.
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.
Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice. SAGE Publications.
Quinones-Gonzalez, L. E. (2022). Subtle Leadership: When Referent Power is Subtly Powerful. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 15(2), 14.
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.
Savage, T. V., & Savage, M. K. (2010). Successful Classroom Management and Discipline: Teaching Self-Control and Responsibility. SAGE Publications.
Woo, H. R. (2017). Exploratory study examining the joint impacts of mentoring and managerial coaching on organizational commitment. Sustainability, 9(2), 181.
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]