Referent power refers to the power a person has to command respect and admiration from followers. It is considered one of the most effective forms of power for inspiring and motivating followers.
Generally, the followers of a charismatic leader with referent power will want to gain the reciprocal admiration and respect from the leader, and work hard for the leader because they consider that leader to be a personal role model.
For example, a teacher with a high degree of referent power will have strong rapport with their students and the students will look up to them, wanting to perform well for the teacher.
Referent Power Definition
As I researched for this article, I jotted-down all the scholarly definitions I came across. Here are some of the clearest:
- “…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.” (Savage & Savage, 2010, p. 29)
- “[Referent power is] based on followers’ identification and liking for the leader” (Northouse, 2010)
- “…comes from the attraction of others to an individual whom they admire and wish to emulate [… with an emphasis] upon the interpersonal relationship between the referent individual and the follower.” (Harris & Hartman, 2001, p. 114)
- “Referent power is derived from the desire of others to please an agent toward whom they have strong feelings of affection, admiration, and loyalty” (Quinones-Gonzalez, 2022)
From these definitions, we can infer that the key feature of this type of power is that authority is granted by followers out of respect for the leader, and not out of coercion or external rewards.
Traits of Leaders with Referent Power
Charismatic leaders exemplify referent power through their magnetic appeal and personal charm that naturally draw people to them (Lyngstad, 2017). Their compelling personality and ability to inspire their followers allow them to exert influence without the need to rely on titles or formal authority. This influence is instead based on their followers’ deep respect, admiration, and personal liking for them (Northouse, 2010).
Read More: Charismatic Leadership Examples
2. Interpersonal Skills
The ability of a leader to possess strong interpersonal skills is a hallmark of their referent authority. These leaders excel in listening, effective communication, conflict resolution, and collaboration which fosters their ability to gain influence through trust, respect, and mutual understanding instead of formal control or coercion (Cal & Mallette, 2015).
Read More: Interpersonal Skills Examples
Ethical leaders embody referent power because their moral stance and actions inspire trust and respect from their followers. They lead by example, demonstrating integrity, honesty, and transparency in their decisions and actions (Savage & Savage, 2010). As a result, their followers feel a personal connection and loyalty towards them, granting them referent power that stems from this deep-seated admiration and respect.
Leaders who display trustworthiness personify referent power by establishing confidence among their followers through reliability and integrity. They generate a safe and trusting environment where followers feel secure in their actions and decisions. This forms a strong emotional bond, giving them influence and respect without the need for authoritative control.
Read More: Trustworthiness Examples
Leaders with a strong conviction demonstrate referent power as their unwavering belief in their goals and values instill a sense of commitment and dedication among their followers. Their passion and determination fuel the team’s motivation and loyalty, providing the leader with an influence rooted in deep respect and personal connection rather than formal authority.
Approachable leaders exhibit referent power through their openness and willingness to be accessible to their followers. They encourage open communication and make their team feel comfortable in expressing their opinions, ideas, or concerns (Savage & Savage, 2010). This ability to foster an inclusive and supportive environment generates an immense respect and personal affinity for the leader, granting them a significant referent power.
Humble leaders are those who effectively demonstrate referent power by acknowledging and accepting their limitations while valuing others’ contributions. By being modest, they generate trust, respect, and admiration among their followers, fostering a deeper personal connection. As this connection strengthens, so does their referent authority, anchored in the mutual respect and personal affinity between the leader and the followers.
Read More: Humility Examples
Fairness is demonstrated by leaders who make unbiased decisions and treat all team members equally, regardless of their roles or backgrounds. Savage and Savage (2010) explain how teachers who are perceived as fair graders, for example, can garner referent authority. These leaders are seen as trustworthy and just, which establishes a sense of respect and personal liking for them among their team. As a result, followers are more likely to be influenced by such leaders.
Respectful leaders who value and appreciate their followers’ ideas and contributions effectively establish referent authority. When leaders treat others with dignity and honor their perspectives, followers develop a deep personal and emotional connection with them. For example, consider two bosses you have had in the past – one you respected and one you didn’t. Now, consider which of these you are more willing to work for and whose decisions you have greater respect for.
Read More: Respectfulness Examples
10. Ability to Inspire
Leaders with the ability to inspire exert referent power as they instill enthusiasm and drive people towards common goals (Harris & Hartman, 2001). They nurture a shared vision and passion in their team, fostering a deep emotional bond. This is perhaps best exemplified by politicians such as Regan and JFK who are often cited as real-life examples of leaders with referent power.
Rapport refers to relationships that are harmonious, mutually respectful, and involve a degree of genuine liking or admiration (Reid & Kawash, 2017). The ability to build this with followers goes a long way toward building up your referent power. This is often, for example, one of the first steps in a teacher establishing their authority in a classroom.
Leaders who serve as mentors glean referent power by providing guidance and support to their followers, rather than just barking commands at them! These leaders nurture the skills, knowledge, and personal growth of their team members, often in one-to-one situations that help to create a strong sense of trust and personal connection (Woo, 2017).
Compassionate leaders create an emotional bond with their team by showing genuine care for their well-being and addressing their concerns effectively. This evokes a feeling of personal attachment and respect among followers, which in turn, strengthens the leader’s power. Furthermore, compassion shows that the leader has heart, so followers trust in their judgment more.
Read More: Compassion Examples
Selfless leaders epitomize referent power by putting their team’s interests before their own. By showing commitment to their followers’ success and prioritizing their needs, these leaders earn a deep level of respect and trust (Fiore, 2004). As a result, followers are more likely to align with a leader who displays such altruism. Note how this power is garnered through respect, not reward or coercion.
Authentic leaders exude referent power by being transparent, genuine, and true to their personal values and beliefs. They lead by example, practicing what they preach, and maintaining consistency in their actions and decisions (Harris & Hartman, 2001). This level of authenticity develops a strong emotional connection, respect, and loyalty among followers. This is often why the politicians who appear *more authentic* and *less like a politician* often end up being the ones who get elected.
Read More: Authenticity Examples
Real-Life Leaders with Referent Power
Many great leaders have referent authority. Examples include:
1. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey holds a great deal of referent power due to her charisma, authenticity, and the deep emotional connections she has created with her vast audience. Her unique ability to connect with people from all walks of life and share their stories with empathy endears her to many, giving her significant influence over her followers. Furthermore, Oprah’s rags-to-riches story and continuous championing of humanitarian causes increase her credibility and respect among her audience.
2. John F. Kennedy
JFK’s referent power stemmed from his charisma, ability to inspire, and his interpersonal skills (Fiore, 2004; Harris & Hartman, 2001)[4,10]. He communicated visionary ideas and progressive social changes effectively and admirably using his exceptional charismatic oratory power which inspired millions and generated a vast following. His youthful energy, intelligence, and crisis management during the Bay of Pigs Invasion engendered trust and respect among his peers and the public.
3. Ronald Reagan
Drawing on his background as an actor and his charisma, Reagan had the ability to connect with his audience on an emotional level, earning him a significant referent power (Harris & Hartman, 2001)[4,10]. His optimistic and down-to-earth demeanor, coupled with his strong conviction in his conservative political ideas rendered him a popular figure among his followers. Reagan’s leadership style was likeable and authentic, which fostered a deep sense of respect and personal connection.
4. Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. embodied referent power with his extraordinary ability to inspire, his unwavering conviction for equality, and his impeccable ethical standards (Fiore, 2004; Harris & Hartman, 2001)[4,10]. His powerful speeches, such as “I Have a Dream,” struck an emotional chord with millions around the world and effectively mobilized them for the cause of civil rights. King’s non-violent approach also projected a deep sense of humility and established him as a leader worth emulating.
5. Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi wielded enormous referent power, largely through his selflessness, humility, and commitment to passive resistance (Harris & Hartman, 2001)[4,10]. His adherence to philosophy of “Satyagraha” or truth-force showcasing his ethical leadership was admired widely. He led by example, living simply and using non-violent protests, which fostered deep respect, admiration, and emotional connection among his followers.
How to Build Referent Power to Become an Effective Leader
Whereas other sources of power, such as legitimate power, can be leveraged from Day 1, referent power is built over time.
For example, without having built rapport as the new boss in a workplace, you won’t be able to use referent power in the workplace quite yet. The employees, obviously, won’t respect and admire someone they do not know.
But you can build strong referent power over time, using some of the following strategies:
- Active listening: This is an effective strategy for building referent power as it demonstrates to your followers that you respect and value their thoughts and emotions. When leaders truly listen to their team members — taking the time to understand their perspectives, empathize with their experiences, and show you’re listening — it creates a positive and supportive environment where followers feel appreciated. Such leaders foster a genuine connection with their followers, thereby developing deep-seated trust and respect, which are the cornerstones of referent power.
- Demonstrating Emotional Intelligence: Leaders can build referent power by displaying high emotional intelligence, which includes recognizing and understanding their own emotions and those of others. By doing so, leaders can foster stronger, meaningful relationships with their followers, manage conflicts effectively, and create a supportive and positive environment that makes them more influential.
- Leading by Example: By consistently behaving ethically, responsibly, and passionately, leaders can inspire their team to follow suit. When leaders demonstrate they walk the talk, it earns them respect and admiration from their followers, thereby boosting referent power (Savage & Savage, 2010).
- Providing Mentorship: Taking the time to nurture and guide followers also builds referent power (Woo, 2017).. By being approachable and offering valuable advice, support, and guidance, leaders can earn trust and loyalty and, as such, significantly influence their followers. One way to do this is to put in place one-on-one meetings where you can, over time, build a strong relationship and build credibility with others in the workplace.
Other Types of Power
Referent power is one of the five bases of power developed by John French and Bertram Raven (1959). It is considered one of the most desirable types.
The other bases of power are outlined below:
|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 and 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 skills that inspire admiration, respect, or emulation from others.||Garners commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty from followers. Less monitoring or micromanaging required.|
As I noted before presenting this table, French and Raven, as well as others, have highlighted that referent power is one of, if not the most, useful types of authority a leader can hold, alongside expert power. As Savage & Savage (2010) argue:
“Those who aspire to leadership roles must develop referent authority. Even the leadership attempts of experts will be ignored if the expert is perceived to be unethical or untrustworthy. However, the combination of expert and referent authority is very powerful and is characteristic of the most effective leaders.”
People with referent power can influence people, inspire action, and achieve their organizational and personal goals. Referent power takes time to build, through strategies such as active listening and genuine and authentic respect for your followers. But it is a hallmark of effective leadership and personal power, and should be cultivated by all leaders aspiring to become a better leader over time.
 French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7(311-320), 1.
 Savage, T. V., & Savage, M. K. (2010). Successful Classroom Management and Discipline: Teaching Self-Control and Responsibility. SAGE Publications.
 Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice. SAGE Publications.
 Harris, O. J., & Hartman, S. J. (2001). Organizational Behavior. Best Business Books.
 Quinones-Gonzalez, L. E. (2022). Subtle Leadership: When Referent Power is Subtly Powerful. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 15(2), 14. (Source)
 Lyngstad, I. (2017). Legitimate, expert and referent power in physical education. Sport, education and society, 22(8), 932-942. (Source)
 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.
 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)
 Woo, H. R. (2017). Exploratory study examining the joint impacts of mentoring and managerial coaching on organizational commitment. Sustainability, 9(2), 181. (Source)
 Fiore, D. J. (2004). Introduction to Educational Administration: Standards, Theories, and Practice. Eye On Education.
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]