A Balance of Power

"So, it becomes a balance of power. A fine balance between situational leadership and the task at hand, with power being the fulcrum to it all."
Written by Mitchell Boling on Jul 01, 2019
A Balance of Power

The power wielded by a leader is the key to finding the right balance between the task at hand and the situational leadership required to accomplish the task. In situational leadership, the leader chooses a follower to perform the task, based upon several factors. These factors can be classified as internal and external. Internal factors include the chosen follower’s level of experience, ability and confidence. External factors include elements which are out of our control, such as time constraints, safety, or even the weather, depending upon the task at hand.  Once the leader matches up the follower with the task at hand, he uses the situational leadership model to decide how to influence the person to complete the task. These include the methods of participating, selling, telling, and delegating.

Studying the situational leadership model is an article in itself. But I refer to it here because it does work hand in hand with a leader’s power.  We cannot have one without the other, because the leader’s power is what drives to the resolution of the leadership situation. What I mean by this is how does the leader influence the follower into doing his bidding? He does this through the application of his power.

In my book, Leadership: A View from the Middle, I wrote about the five types of power found in the leadership continuum. These include legitimate, reward, coercive, expert and referent. The leader chooses which type of power to utilize in a given situation, such as assigning a follower to perform a task. But what happens to a leader or an organization when there is an absence of power? Before we find out, let’s take a quick look at each power:

One with legitimate power is someone who has the legitimate, or legal, ability to make a decision in regard to his followers. Think of it as a manager asking his employees to perform a given task. This is the most common power in any workplace where there is a rank and order of people in their respective positions. 

One with reward power is someone who will reward a follower for completing a task. This power is also utilized by a formal leader or manager who will reward the follower with additional compensation or time off in return for completing the task, for instance.

One with coercive power is someone who rules out of fear and will use threats or demands to convince a follower to complete a given task. This type of power can be utilized by the formal leader as well as informal leaders.

One with expert power is an expert in their field. Due to their expertise, they can influence followers to perform tasks. This is mostly because the followers may not yet have the experience of the leader and will follow them because they are seen as confident and knowledgeable.  Both formal and informal leaders can have this power. This power may begin to fade, however, as followers accumulate their own knowledge of the field and surpassing that of the leader’s.

One with referent power is someone who has reached the pinnacle of power, and it can be attained by formal or informal leaders. This is the highest and most difficult power level to reach, as this power is given to the leader by his or her followers. I say this because the followers look to the leader with this power as someone who is charismatic and capable of leading them through arduous circumstances. They want to follow this leader. They also believe he or she is someone who they would like to mold themselves after, due to the respect, attitude and positive mindset they embody as the leader of the group.

Look at the diagram above. One can easily see that the formal leader has the capability to utilize each power in the leadership continuum, but the informal leader only has access to three.

Understanding this diagram from the formal leader’s standpoint is simple. After all, each of the powers can easily relate to someone who is in a management position--the formal leader, the manager of an organization.  But let’s look at it from the informal leader’s point of view. An informal leader is someone in the organization that is not in a formal position of power, as is the manager. The informal leader can be an expert in their field, yet sometimes coercive towards his or her coworkers. The informal leader can also be revered in his or her circle. He or she may be loved and followed by their coworkers, as referent power is given to this person by the followers themselves.

The informal leader can be literally anyone in the organization, other than a manager. Sometimes they are placed into a position with a title such as Shift Leader, Foreman, or Work Lead. Labels such as these do not always come with a formal leadership role, however, but a title in name only. Being an informal leader is a greater challenge than being a formal leader. This is because they only have the three powers at their disposal, and any of them can be lost at any time. Now take a closer look.

The first power we can throw out is coercive.  This power should not be used too often, as it is not very effective in the grand scheme of things. Threatening folks to do their jobs will not buy any points for the leader, formal or informal.  This leaves us with only expert and referent powers.

We lose our expert power when our coworkers learn their profession as they become proficient at the tasks associated with their career. As they grow into their roles, they tend to pull away from the informal leader in this respect. If an informal leader is equal to or less than the prospective followers in the expertise of their shared career field, then the power is lost. This leaves us with the most difficult power to attain, and most difficult power to keep, referent power.

Referent power is the pinnacle of all the powers, and the most difficult to attain. It can be snuffed out in a heartbeat, thanks to a poorly worded email or an offhand remark. Remember this power is given to the leader by the followers themselves, therefore it makes it the easiest power to lose altogether. Followers are always watching the leader. If the leader gives them reason to snatch the power away, they will take it and leave the informal leader with no power at all.

Although his power has now gone, the informal leader might remain cast into the role of Shift Leader, Foreman or Work Lead. If he has the manager’s backing, then he should be okay to continue in the role by using the formal leader’s power by proxy. But if the manager is not able to back the informal leader or has lost some of his own powers to boot, then the informal leader becomes nothing more than a lame duck.

I mentioned the formal leader losing some of his own powers. If we look at the diagram again, we can see that the three shared powers can also be lost by a formal leader. The reward power can be lost as well, due to budgetary constraints within the company. This leaves only legitimate power. The only way to lose this power is to be removed from the position. But what if the formal leader is weak in this regard, meaning that he doesn’t follow through adequately when employees stray the course? What this means is that if the formal leader loses all but his weak, legitimate power, then he is in danger of becoming a paper tiger.

Imagine being in an organization with the formal leader as a paper tiger and the informal leader as a lame duck. This would be a difficult situation for anyone, as there would be nowhere to go and no one to follow. Cliques may begin to form and undermine the goals of the organization. What also may occur is the organization may become a crew of individuals wandering around with no guidance or control—mob rules. In any case, these are not good options. Therefore, it is imperative for any leader, formal or informal, to ensure they are doing everything they can to retain some if not all, of these five powers of leadership.

How do we retain our power? We do this through genuine interactions with our followers. We get to know them. We allow them to get to know us. We set the example, every day. We do what we say, and we say what we do. We must be sincere, trustworthy, and consistent. For them to follow us, they would need a reason. I’ve just given several, but these are a scratch on the surface of leadership potential. As leaders, we must continually hone our skills in the leadership realm. This includes understanding the powers that we have been afforded and choosing the best power wisely, based on the situation.

If we utilize our powers correctly, then we would also be able to marry them up to given situations. This circles back to the situational leadership model—how to choose a follower for a task. We might have the best person in mind to complete the task, but if we do not have the power to influence them to want to complete it, then we will never get anywhere. So, it becomes a balance of power. A fine balance between situational leadership and the task at hand, with power being the fulcrum to it all.