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.