A Model for Discussing Power when Coaching Leaders by Lynne Hindmarch

Power and politics are an inevitable part of organisational life.  Most of my clients are interested in power, though they may not explicitly state it. I work as an executive coach, and many of my clients are in senior positions in organisations.  Working with them over the years, it’s clear to me that the desire to be in a position of power has been a strong driver in taking them to the top. 

Leaders need power to influence others to do things they might not otherwise choose to do. But I have noticed that leaders are not necessarily aware of how they influence others, or that they may have some alternatives which they haven’t considered.  This is important because at times the inappropriate or counterproductive use of power has been a trigger for the coaching. Using French and Raven’s Five Bases of Interpersonal Power (1959) as a model or framework can be useful in helping clients (particularly those who rely heavily on one approach) consider that they have options in how they influence, and what those options look like. 

Firstly, I would like to position the model in the context of leadership.  Leadership is a massive topic, which I will touch on lightly, simply to indicate two perspectives on the subject which I think are relevant to this blog-article:

  • The first is what is known as the contingent style of leadership (Fiedler, 1978), which suggests that there is no one best way to lead; the effective leader stays mindful of the interactions and factors that are affecting the ability to lead effectively.

  • The other perspective was presented in an article in the Harvard Review. This takes the view that you can have too much of a good thing (overuse of strengths), and that the most effective leader is versatile, flexible and agile (Kaplan and Kaiser, 2003).

Both these perspectives have a common theme: effective leaders are able to adapt their leadership style to what is appropriate at the time.  In coaching leaders, therefore, helping them understand their prevailing style of influencing others can be illuminating and assist them in considering other options.  This can be an important part of developing their flexibility, and thus effectiveness, as a leader.

French and Raven’s Five Bases of Interpersonal Power

French and Raven’s Five Bases of Interpersonal Power provides a useful framework for starting a conversation about the leader’s power base and how they use it.  Of course, the conversation has to be appropriate to the coaching goals.  However, it is a way of reviewing the leader’s influencing style in a manner which generally they haven’t come across before. 

The model is shown below, but when I’m with a client I usually sketch it out on a pad while I’m talking it through.  I feel this draws the client into the discussion much more readily than just presenting them with the model already printed on a piece of paper. The five bases of power refer to what the power-holder controls that allows them to influence the behaviour of another (known as the ‘target’ for the purposes of the model).  

Positional Power

In the model, the first three of the power bases I describe are ‘positional’; that is, they relate to the leader’s role in the organisation.

Coercive Power

This form of power draws on punishment and the threat of punishment to influence. All organisations have forms of negative outcomes that a powerholder can use. 

  • At the extreme, this can mean threatening dismissal, or a disciplinary process, docking of pay or loss of privileges.

  • If coercive power is overused, there will be increased compliance on the people who it is targeted at, but the powerholder is likely to be disliked, and surveillance is needed to ensure that people remain compliant.

Using coercive power will cause resentment and dissatisfaction among people it’s applied to.  It is also likely to be hard to maintain as the target is likely to engage in avoidance behaviour where possible. It can lead to bullying behaviour, which may result in people leaving – possibly the best people who can easily get jobs elsewhere
Example: I have seen this behaviour used in a team led by a boss who was very driven by making money.  His overbearing style was matched by shouting and intimidating people who did not perform as he wished. People become very distressed, and many left. The problem spread as his behaviour became accepted in his department as the norm for leadership.  In this particular case he refused to acknowledge that his behaviour needed to change, and his contract was eventually terminated.  In fact he became the recipient of the ultimate use of coercive power!

Reward Power

This is power based on the ability to reward people for compliance. If people expect that you will reward them for something they are more likely to do it.  Reward is any benefit that is attractive to the target. It may be a pay rise, or promotion, or other job benefits.  

  • Reward power is likely to lead to desired behaviour change lasting longer than that achieved through coercion, and also leads to liking of the power-holder.

  • It has its limitations as it depends on the degree that a leader has control over benefits such as pay and promotion. However, there are less tangible forms of reward that a leader can use that are often be overlooked, such as positive feedback, gratitude, admiration and recognition. This can be very effective.

Example: One client, recalled taking part in a major IT project, which involved working over the weekend.  Late on the Saturday night the MD of the company appeared, carrying cans of lager and pizzas for the IT team, to show his appreciation for what they were doing.  Later that week the IT team bumped into the MD in the staff restaurant. He stopped and spoke to them, remembering the name of every member of the team.  

Years later my client described him as the best boss he had ever had.  Reward does not have to be difficult.  At the very least it can be bothering to remember someone’s name.  Not as strong as first seems – how much control does leader have over pay and promotion?  When you use up rewards, power base weakens.

Legitimate Power

This is power based on the authority that comes with the position or job.  So it belongs to the role rather than the individual.  

  • It is based on the belief that a person has a formal right to make demands, and expect others to obey.

  • It can be limiting to use this as the sole basis of power, as people can be very creative at avoiding carrying out orders if they wish. It is unpredictable and unstable, because if the person loses their position, legitimate power is lost as well.

Example: A client who was not particularly assertive was amazed when he joined a company where legitimate power was respected.  His position as a senior manager meant that his demands were carried out without him experiencing the discomfort of asserting himself very much. However, when he moved to another position in a matrix organisation, where roles were less clear cut, with more ‘dotted line’ responsibilities and less acknowledgement and respect for legitimate authority, the limitations of this power base became clear.  

Personal power

The final two of the power bases are ‘personal’: that is they are part of the leader’s style and are therefore not dependent on a formal role in the organisation.  Because they are personal, they are also transportable, and travel with the leader whatever organisation they are in. 

Expert power

This is based on a person’s high level of knowledge and skills.  Many professionals rely on this as a power base to influence others and get work done. 

  • Having expertise means that others are more likely to listen to opinions, trust judgement, and acknowledge leadership.

  • However, the basis of this power is reduced if the expertise becomes more widely available or is no longer appropriate.

This is an important point that leaders sometimes miss.  At times becoming a leader means leaving behind their area of expertise, and other aspects of leadership become important.  This happens frequently when people who are experts in their field are promoted into leadership positions where that expertise is not part of the requirements of leadership.  

Referent power

This power base comes from the identification of the target with the aims, goals, values, attitudes or needs of the power-holder. 

  • It is a deeper, more effective and longer-lasting basis of influence as the target agrees in many respects with the power-holder and is therefore more inclined to engage in the behaviour willingly. Liking increases identification.

  • Indeed, anyone in the organisation can have referent power, regardless of their formal position.

The advantage of referent power is that there is no need for close supervision as the target can generally be relied upon to agree with the instruction or request. I have seen this power exercised in a small business when the dynamic and highly regarded MD was involved in a business that was ground-breaking in an area that was highly competitive yet adding value to human well-being.  The degree of motivation amongst the team was compelling.  

How I make best use of the model

There are a number of occasions when I might introduce the model.  I coach on an emerging leaders programme, and it can help my clients, in the early stages of leadership, reflect on the different styles of influencing, where they might most naturally gravitate, and the advantages of developing other approaches.  In coaching more experienced leaders, the conversation about their style might be part of the reason they came for coaching, or it might emerge as part of the feedback session on a personality assessment.  In all cases, it can lead to a discussion about their developmental needs, and how they can improve their ability to lead effectively.

When I’m talking through this model with a client, I emphasise that there is no power base that is intrinsically better or worse than others.  I ask them to reflect on their leadership style, and how aware they are of the power bases they use most often. 

  • Do they mainly use just one or two?

  • What consequences have they noticed, both expected and unexpected?

  • Can they think of a time when they have used it effectively?

  • When hasn’t it worked?

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages?

  • What other power bases might they use to increase their effectiveness as a leader?

  • What kind of followers do the different power bases produce?

  • What sources of power do the people who influence them draw on?

  • To what extent is there a prevalent power base in their organisation and how has this affected its culture?

These are examples of questions that I have used to help leaders consider more deeply their leadership style, the effect it has on those around them, and the extent it helps or hinders them in achieving their objectives as a leader. 

Where next?

Leaders use power as a means of attaining team and organisational goals.  It is a means of facilitating their achievements, and what is desired as being an effective leader. Through the model and shared examples, I hope I have demonstrated in this blog-article that leadership and power are closely intertwined. Here I focus on helping leaders quickly understand, through a simple framework, the different bases of power that co-exist with each other and reflect on how they might develop further their ability to influence by increasing their flexibility.

The way a leader behaves towards others and how effectively they get the best from people, can depend on the source and use of power. And that power might not come from official status or title.  In my experience, helping clients understand the power they use, learn to consider alternatives and flex their style enhances their success as a leader. 

Question: How have you talked about power in a constructive way with your clients working in leadership roles?

To connect with Lynne Hindmarch

Fiedler, F E (1978) The Contingency Model and the Dynamics of the Leadership Process. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 11, pp 59-112.
French, J R P, Raven, B (1959) The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander. Group dynamics. New York: Harper & Row.
Kaplan, E and Kaiser, R B (2003) Developing Versatile Leadership. In MITSloan Management Review, Vol 44, No. 4 pp 19-26.