Power and influence
As leadership is an act of influence, if you don’t have power then you can’t influence. If you can’t influence then you can’t be a leader.
Power has been defined as the ability to get someone to do something they would not otherwise have done (Dahl 1957). In other words, power is about the capacity to influence others, while influence is concerned with producing desired behavioural or psychological effects in another person.
A person’s power is determined by two factors: personal attributes and position characteristics. Personal power is your source for influencing and leading. Positional power is related to your role and is your power for managing.
Several personal attributes foster power:
- Expertise: Are you considered to be an expert in your chosen field?
- Personal attraction: Do people like being around you?
- Extra effort: Do you ‘go the extra mile’ at work?
- Legitimacy: Is your expertise, attraction and effort seen to be relevant and important to your organisation?
Each of these attributes are within your direct and personal control. So even if you don’t have ‘positional power’, that is, are not very senior in your workplace, you still have the capacity to exert influence by harnessing your personal power. This is why ‘pure’ forms of leadership are more often seen at lower levels of organisations rather than in more senior roles.
On the other hand, if your position has power (eg the CEO), then people will be following you because of your position, not necessarily because of who you are as a person.
Whether you have ‘positional power’ depends on where you sit in your organisation. It’s called ‘positional power’ because the power does not belong to you; it belongs to the role. If you were to leave the role, you wouldn’t take the power with you, it would be left there for the next person to take up.
The sources of positional power are:
- Centrality: this is the relative position in a communication network. Central positions have greater power. Therefore to increase power, you would need to take a central role in communication networks.
- Criticality: this refers to the uniqueness of a task assignment. Critical tasks are often assigned to one position. In other words, taking on tasks that are critical to the work performed by others increases power.
- Flexibility: the amount of discretion vested in a position. Flexible positions foster power because they do not involve close supervision and a requirement to do everything by the book. This allows scope for innovation and personal achievement.
- Visibility: the degree to which influential leaders in an organisation are aware of a person’s task performance. If you are not visible, then you need to find ways to become visible to the people who matter.
- Relevance: the relationship between the tasks performed by individuals and organisational priorities. The more your role is directly aligned with the strategic outcomes of the organisation, the more power you will have, which is why some areas of an organisation are treated better than others. For example, they may be more profitable or have greater industry prestige and, as such, are considered to hold more relevance.
To exert influence and lead, you must have a clear understanding of which sources of power are available to you. And for the process of leadership to develop, you can now start thinking about which sources of power you already have and which sources you would like to cultivate.
Reflect on how you have you used your personal power over the past week, and how effective was this? Why was it effective?
Dahl, R (1957) as cited in Morgan, G 1997, Images of organization, Thousand Oaks, CA, p. 162
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