Power Doesn’t Always Corrupt: How to Use Your Influence as a Leader

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Article by Karima Mariama-Arthur

When English politician and historian John Dalberg-Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt,” he was painting with a broad brush. There are many types of power, and while some are corrupting, others can bring out the best in people. When leaders leverage their power effectively, they can improve morale and increase productivity.

The proper use of power is to the abuse of power as democracy is to autocracy. When a leader leverages their credibility and influence to invite others to participate in decision-making, the people on the ground feel ownership of the results, much like voters in a democracy. When a leader governs like an autocrat, people usually only participate reluctantly, if at all. Work still gets done in an organization ruled with an iron fist, but turnover is often high and sustainability is often low.

There are many different types of power, but the four highlighted here represent the most common ways leaders bring their power to the fore. Here’s what you need to know about each to exercise influence effectively:

Coercive Power

Inspiring your desired behavior by wielding the stick — exercising control by threatening some form of punishment for noncompliance — is what coercive power looks like in practice.

In some cases, it can be extremely effective. For example, the possibility of being caught and punished generally deters crime, which is an important component of the criminal justice system. However, coercive power is not effective in all settings. Those who leverage coercive power to implement their agendas aren’t perceived as leading so much as intimidating. Using fear to complete a project might get you across the finish line, but don’t expect everyone to stick around to celebrate.

If you catch yourself saying things like, “If you don’t want this job, I’ll find someone else who does,” or using intimidation to get those reports submitted on time, remind yourself there is definitely a better way. Remember that the employee you berate today could be the colleague whose support you desperately need tomorrow. Sure, you should set expectations and boundaries, but do so in a way that reinforces the greatest good.

Legitimate Power

When power is derived from a formal position within an organization’s hierarchy, it usually comes with the authority to make demands and expect others to be compliant. However, this power may also be conferred upon you by someone with even greater authority, which can be a little tricky. If you combine legitimate power with coercive power, you might be invited to tender your letter of resignation sooner or later, so tread lightly.

The people you lead will almost always give you more of themselves when you treat them with respect, so wield your legitimate power with a soft touch. CEOs like In-N-Out Burger’s Lynsi Snyder and Southwest Airlines’ Gary Kelly are so beloved by their employees  because they show appreciation and invite workers to contribute their best efforts to the company. While titles signal authority, they don’t always equal influence; be mindful of the difference.

Expert Power

Leaders who hold expert power are those with hard-earned knowledge and skill sets on which others rely. Their good judgment has been tested in battle, and as a result, it usually garners them no small amount of respect. Individuals who wield expert power are typically an organization’s thought leaders. Their peers hardly begrudge them their authority and commonly defer to their insights because they generally know more than anyone else in the room. However, even the most lauded of experts can lose credibility by being short on soft skills or falling victim to their ego, thereby marring the perceived value of their contributions and authority.

Dr. Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, has found such resonance with the masses in part because people recognize him as an expert in his field. However, Dr. Gardner also understands how human connection and rapport boost the value of his contributions to society, and he uses this knowledge to his advantage. Together, these attributes help him leverage the next type of power on this list.

Referent Power

Every leader should aspire to hold referent power, which uses interpersonal connections and soft skills to unite people in a common mission. The well-loved coach who uses heartfelt words to rally his team to victory holds referent power. So, too, does the CEO who brings a contingent of loyal supporters along when she moves to a new organization.

Representative John Lewis held referent power in life, which is why he has received such an outpouring of love in death. Lewis was widely known for his compelling interpersonal skills and rousing advocacy, so it comes as no surprise that many have been inspired by his example to “get in good trouble”  and make important contributions to American society.

Power can be a tool or a weapon, depending on the person holding it. It is incumbent on a leader to make sure they use their power to build people up rather than tear them down. Although it may seem counterintuitive to some, effective leadership entails the ability to invite others to share the reins and promote a genuine feeling of esprit de corps.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

A leading authority on leadership development and organizational performance management, Karima Mariama-Arthur brings more than 25 years of comprehensive, blue-chip experience in law, business, and academia to every client engagement. A shrewd advisor to distinguished organizations from DC to Dubai, Karima offers expert insights to help clients successfully navigate today’s ever-changing and competitive global business environment. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook, Poised for Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond  (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.

By SUCCESS Magazine