Power and influence

  • Leadership and power
  • Sources of power
  • Types, use and limits of power
  • Exercising power

Power is a difficult topic to deal with in an area such as outdoor leadership. It is an expected part of politics, business management and bureaucracies but receives less attention in other areas. Power is typically defined as the capacity of one person to influence the behaviour or attitude of another. The link between power and leadership is one which good leaders understand, and know how and when to use.

Leadership and power

The ability to recognise and harness the sources of power in a group is a key feature of a good leader, as power is an inherent part of leadership. It is important to understand that:

  • effective leadership usually requires the effective use of power
  • the use of power attracts to the user the responsibility for the consequences.

All members of a group have power of one sort or another and any member may use available power at almost any time.

Sources of power

The sources of power within groups may be described as:

  • coercive power—to punish someone if they deviate from the required behaviour
  • reward power—to give someone what they want in exchange for the required behaviour
  • position power—that comes from a person’s formal position or role in the group
  • personal power—that comes from a person’s own character and characteristics
  • expert power—which comes from a person’s knowledge and skill
  • negative power—that comes from being able to prevent things from happening.

Again, remember that power does not belong only to the leader. It may also belong to any member of the group, the group itself or any number of people within the group.

Types, uses and limits of power

Each source of power has its limits and its weaknesses.

Coercive power
This form of power requires the ability and opportunity to threaten or to cause something adverse or disliked. As this is a very obvious way to wield power, it is not popular. Coercive power can easily be inadvertently used, particularly in the form of an unthinking but hurtful remark or action. Its use should be very deliberate and considered, and the user must always be prepared to deal with the consequences— being seen as bullying, inconsiderate or insensitive. On commercial trips, for instance, any form of coercion is likely to be inappropriate, regardless of the apparent justification at the time. It is most appropriately used with the ‘telling’ situational leadership style.

Reward power
This form of power requires the user to have the ability to deliver something that is wanted or needed. If the reward is available elsewhere, it ceases to be a useful source of power. The receiver should value the reward at least as highly as the giver, otherwise the receiver will see it as being cheap. Rewards may also be denied as well as given. Sincere recognition of a person’s performance by a leader or by the group is one of the easiest and most effective of rewards.

Reward power may be used in any of the four situational leadership styles, but is best suited to the ‘selling’ situational leadership style. It must be used sensitively to avoid feelings in the receiver of being bought, bribed or cynically undervalued.

Position power
This power comes from an external recognition of a person’s role or position, such as being a company’s managing director. The acceptance by the group of a formal leader is sufficient to confer position power on that person, especially if it is supported by one or more other sources of power. However position power can easily be devalued if the leader’s abilities are found inadequate.

Personal power
This is the most fragile source of power because it relies on such things as personality, intelligence, charisma or physical strength and may be linked to other types of power such as expertise or position. Because it is associated with the person rather than with position or resources, it is very much sought after (and because it is so highly valued, it is often mistaken for these other sources of power). Sporting identities most often only retain their ‘charisma’ while they are still winning! Personal power is reinforced by success and diminished by defeat or misadventure.

Position power and personal power may be used together through the developmental stages of the group and as the appropriate situational leadership style moves from ‘selling’, through ‘participating’ to ‘delegating’. This stage in a group’s development, the shift from partial dependence on the leader to the threshold of autonomy, is a delicate one. The appropriate sources of power to use in this phase require equally delicate application as each has its own inherent weakness.

Expert power
This is a well-respected form of power and almost everyone has some measure of it. Outdoor leaders may hold this form of power in such ways as being the best (or only) navigator or by being the only person to know the route! This power source requires that the expertise be recognised by the group and may attract those whose expertise lies more in bluffing than in performing, because not everyone has the knowledge to refute or to recognise spurious claims. The knowledge claimed as the source of power must be relevant to the situation and acceptably accurate. Bluffing is often a temptation, but being found out results in almost immediate loss of this power. Expert power is used most effectively as part of the ‘delegating’ style of situational leadership.

Negative power
With some justification, this may be described as the power of the powerless. Its use can be very effective but to be so, it must have wide support within the group. Using negative power may lead to, or be used to express feelings of distrust developing between the leader and the group or person exercising it, and its misuse can unnecessarily disrupt the working of the group and draw onto the user the wrath of all.

Exercising power

The ways in which power may be exercised are few, but varied, and range from being subtle to being highly conspicuous. As with all leadership and management topics, there seems to be as many ways to categorise them as there are writers on the subject. Here are six common ways in which power can be used.

Direct methods

Force: The application of power by force or threat of force is possibly the oldest and crudest method. It is not restricted to the use of coercive power but may also be applied to the denial of rewards. It may include the use of personal power (e.g. physical strength, displays of temper) as ways of projecting power. In the short term, this can be effective, but in the longer term, the results may be sufficiently damaging to the reputation of the leader to make this a tactic of last resort.

Rules: Power may be projected by rules. A leader may devise the rules for the operation of a group by using experience and knowledge or the general wishes of the group. In general, rules should apply to everyone in the group. There are two prerequisites for this method to be effective: the perceived right to create rules for the group, and the means and the will to enforce the rules either through the leader directly or through group pressure.

Negotiation and exchange: Any power source may serve as part of the negotiating process and will involve sharing power or power sources. The things most often negotiated generally come from the reward power sources available to the leader such as resources, friendship, respect or support, and are exchanged for such things as compliance, support or respect. This method requires skill and good judgment of what the other party values. It is, if properly done, an acceptable method but lasts only as long as the bargain struck between the parties continues.

Persuasion: This is thought to be the least value-laden method of using power as it is supposed to rely on logic and argument. In practice, other methods nearly always intrude into the process, such as using charm, charisma, tricks of rhetoric, using rules to back a position, beginning negotiations as part of the argument or veiled threats to use force. In addition, the use and nature of the persuasive techniques used may also add the persuader's values to the process.

Important things to note
  • The person with the power at any time is not necessarily the person who appears to be in control
  • Power is sweet to hold and very difficult to surrender
  • A person who clings to power too long is at best a nuisance and at worst a danger
  • Power is like manure; spread it and the group thrives
  • Take power humbly, use it wisely and surrender it gracefully


Indirect methods

Environment: All action takes place in an environment of some sort. Environments may be physical, emotional, or ethical such as shared values. A leader can use the available sources of power to change the environment in which a group operates. Such obvious things as selecting good campsites and lunch spots, or ensuring that the group walks at a comfortable pace will allow the group to feel better and to function better.

Charisma: This method of using power is the rarest and most effective of all the methods. It is commonly the application of personal power, often supported by expert power to create a desire to work with or for an individual. Although many leaders believe that they use this method of projecting their power because of the prestige attached to it, few actually do and all rely to a greater or lesser degree on more mundane methods such as persuasion or shrewd negotiation. Because it can be extremely effective and because it is so difficult to isolate and to identify, it is open to abuse. Notable examples of where this method of projecting power is used and abused include demagogues, sales representatives and religious leaders.

Further reading

Hersey P., Blanchard K. H. & Johnson D. E. 1996. Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources, 7th edn. Prentice-Hall International.

Handy C. B. 1979. Understanding Organisations.Penguin Books.

Milton C. R., Entrekin L. & Stening B. W. 1984. Organisational Behaviour in Australia. Prentice-Hall Australia.

Robbins S. P. 1986. Organizational Behaviour: Concepts, Controversies and Applications, 3rd edn. Prentice-Hall International.