The 5 sources of power is a concept created by French and Raven (1959)1 that is used in leadership theory to conceptualize how people can gain and exercise power in an organization and everyday life.
These sources of power are:
- Legitimate: Legitimate power is power that a person gets from their position in an organizational hierarchy.
- Reward: Reward power is power a person has because of their ability to distribute rewards for desired behaviors.
- Coercive: Coercive power is the opposite of reward power, reflecting the ability to distribute punishments to deter unwanted behaviors.
- Expert: Expert power is gained by convincing your followers, peers, or subordinates that you genuinely have more expertise than them, so they should follow you.
- Referent: Referent power is power you have based on your ability to create genuine relationships with followers who admire, respect, or want to emulate you.
I’ll explain the pros and cons of each ‘base of power‘ below, with examples.
The 5 Sources of Power
1. Legitimate Power
Legitimate power is a form of authority that is derived from a person’s position or role within an organization, such as a manager or a CEO.
This power is recognized and respected by others because it is earned or granted through the official hierarchy of the organization2.
Having legitimate power can help establish clear lines of command, enabling effective decision-making and efficient work processes within an organization. This is particularly important in situations such as military and police command2,3,4.
However, it can be short-lived without being paired with other forms of power. As Fiore (2004, p. 12)4 argues, it “will quickly dissolve if the leader fails to utilize other power sources.” This is because most people will “resist blindly following the leadership of others” (Savage & Savage, 2010)5.
Example of Legitimate Power: In a corporation, the CEO holds legitimate power as their position at the top of the hierarchy conveys ultimate decision-making authority. This power enables them to set strategic direction, make essential corporate decisions, and delegate tasks down the chain of command, and their directives are adhered to due to the recognized authority of their role.
2. Reward Power
Reward power comes from the ability to control the allocation of rewards valued by others and to remove negative sanctions4.
Reward power is considered to be the strongest short-term motivator among the five types of power6, boosting productivity and job satisfaction as employees are incentivized to perform optimally to receive benefits.
However, as with all external reward mechanisms, reward power may have negative externalities. Primarily, it requires the leader to align incentives with the desires and motivators of subordinates. It can also cause dependency on external rewards6, inadvertently decrease intrinsic motivation7, and decrease in effectiveness over time8, a phenomenon similar to sensory adaptation.
Example of Reward Power: A sales manager uses reward power to motivate her team by offering a bonus to the team member who can exceed their sales target by the widest margin. This rewards system incentivizes employees to work harder and put forth additional effort to achieve the bonus, thereby enhancing sales for the company.
3. Coercive Power
Coercive power involves the use of threats, sanctions, or punishments to influence or control the behavior of others3.
This is typically used as a last resort when other forms of power, such as reward or legitimate power, have failed to achieve the desired compliance or outcome.
It is highly effective in the short term, especially if the punishment is particularly aversive. As Fiore (2004, p. 11)4 argues, “the subordinates’ perceptions of the punishment’s strengths have a strong influence over the degree to which coercive power actually influences behavior.”
However, coercive power tends to can engender resentment, decrease morale, break down the leader-follower relationship, and cause high levels of stress4,9,10. This all leads to a negative workplace environment.
Overreliance on coercive power can also stifle creativity and growth, as employees may be too scared of punishment to voice ideas or take risks.
Example of Coercive Power: A manager exercising coercive power might give a written warning to an employee who consistently arrives late to work, with the threat of termination if the behavior continues. This use of potential punishment seeks to alter the employee’s actions and ensure punctuality moving forward.
4. Expert Power
Expert power is the authority that comes from having specialized knowledge, skills, or expertise in a specific area. It is earned and granted based on competence, experience, and proven ability to deliver results4,10,11.
The benefit of expert power lies in its ability to inspire trust and confidence. Employees tend to respect and adhere to decisions made by those they perceive to have expert power, which can be conducive to efficient problem-solving and informed decision-making.
However, you don’t just have this power. You need to convince others of your expertise. As Lunenberg (2012, p. 4)11 argues, “followers must perceive the power holder to be credible, trustworthy, and relevant.”
Expert power is also limited to the very narrow and specific area of expertise, so you could lose your authority the moment you move outside of your area of knowledge.
Example of Expert Power: A technical team leader in a software company, who has years of experience and a deep understanding of complex coding, exhibits expert power. Other team members seek advice from this leader and trust their judgments and directives due to their superior expertise and acumen in the field.
5. Referent Power
Referent power is the kind of influence a leader wields based on admiration, respect, or identification others have towards them. It often derives from personal characteristics such as charisma or the ability to inspire and motivate3,12,13.
When a leader holds referent power, they can foster loyalty, enthusiasm, and dedication amongst team members, and can inspire others to strive to reach their fullest potential12. It is regularly cited as the ideal form or power, promoting long-term inspiration and trust.
Example of Referent Power: A beloved football coach who inspires their team and is greatly admired by all the players possesses referent power. Players are more likely to follow instructions, strive to perform their best, and be unified as a team because they respect and identify with their coach, and are motivated not to let him down.
The Ideal Authority Model: ‘Personal Power’
As Savage & Savage (2010)11 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.”
Personal power is extremely powerful because it inspires trust and loyalty in a leader from those they lead. The leader’s expertise gives them the credibility necessary for others to trust their decisions and instructions, and their referent power – derived from their charisma, authenticity, and ability to inspire – ensures commitment and enthusiasm from their followers5,11.
This combination creates an environment where leaders are not just respected for their knowledge but are also genuinely admired and followed for their qualities, allowing them to motivate and influence effectively.
|Base of Power||Definition||Example||Pros||Cons|
|Legitimate||Power derived from a position of authority within an organization.||A manager assigning tasks to a team member.||– Ensures order and predictability in an organization.|
– Helps in maintaining an organized chain of command.
|– Is not strong without other forms of power stacked on top.|
– May promote a hierarchical culture that stifles creativity.
|Reward||Power originating from the ability to provide positive outcomes or withhold them.||A supervisor offering a bonus for high performance.||– Can motivate employees to perform better.|
– Enhances positive behavior through rewards.
|– Can lead to dependency and expectancy of/on rewards. |
– Tends to fade over time.
– Is ineffective if rewards are not aligned with followers’ desires.
|Coercive||Power that comes from the ability to impose unpleasant consequences.||A team leader threatening to revoke privileges for non-compliance.||– Can ensure compliance and adherence to rules.|
– Effective for short-term objectives.
|– Can breed resentment and fear among subordinates. |
– Negatively impacts leader-subordinate relationships.
|Expert||Power derived from knowledge, skills, and expertise.||A skilled engineer having influence over decisions due to technical expertise.||– Fosters respect and trust among colleagues.||– Must be proven to subordinates and get respect.|
– Takes time to develop as you need to actually gain the expertise.
|Referent||Power stemming from personal characteristics, charisma, and interpersonal relationships.||A charismatic leader inspiring and motivating the team.||– Fosters a positive and motivational work environment.|
– Builds strong interpersonal relationships.
|– Takes time to develop as it’s based on relationships.|
Before you Go
This topic overlaps significantly with discussion of leadership style. So, it’s worth checking out my article on the different types of leadership styles to get a strong idea of what type of leader you are, and what source of power you can leverage based on your style and position.
 French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7(311-320), 1
 Lyngstad, I. (2017). Legitimate, expert and referent power in physical education. Sport, education and society, 22(8), 932-942. (Source)
 Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice. SAGE Publications.
 Fiore, D. J. (2004). Introduction to Educational Administration: Standards, Theories, and Practice. Eye On Education.
 Savage, T. V., & Savage, M. K. (2010). Successful Classroom Management and Discipline: Teaching Self-Control and Responsibility. SAGE Publications.
 Teimouri, H., Izadpanah, N., Akbariani, S., Jenab, K., Khoury, S., & Moslehpour, S. (2015). The effect of managerial power on employees’ affective commitment: Case study. Journal of Management, 3(2), 21-30.
 Webster, M. (2012). Evolving concepts of sensory adaptation. F1000 Biology Reports, 4(21), 1–7. (Source)
 Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627. (Source)
 Idrus, A. (2020). The effect of coercive power and reward toward teacher’s job satisfaction. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change, 12(5), 491-504.
 Landa, D., & Tyson, S. A. (2017). Coercive leadership. American Journal of Political Science, 61(3), 559-574. (Source)
 Lunenburg, F. C. (2012). Power and leadership: An influence process. International journal of management, business, and administration, 15(1), 1-9.
 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)
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]