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.