Ambitious employees and aspiring leaders often ask me “How do I develop power?” and “Where does power come from?”
Back in the late 1950s, psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven identified five major sources of power. That number has since evolved to seven power sources, but the core idea remains; there are many different ways to get power.
First, there’s legitimate power, also known as titular or formal power. It’s power that comes from having a title. It generally comes from a place in a hierarchy, so I have more power as a VP than I did as a director. I have more power as a director than I did as a manager, and so forth. But this power gets overused. If you constantly have to say “do it because I’m the boss” the people you’re trying to influence will get turned off pretty quickly.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is said to have once remarked, “Do I have to go down to the front office and get that sign that says I’m the CEO for you to stop arguing with me?” From time to time you can pull that off. But somebody like Jeff Bezos does not live and die by legitimate ‘I’m the CEO’ power. He tends to utilize other sources of power that are much more powerful.
Referent And Connection Power
Referent power comes from being really well liked (and can imply lots of charisma). Somewhat related to that is connection power. Think of a Hollywood agent who has power because of whom they can get access to. When you can call up somebody who’s powerful and say, ‘yeah, I can probably get Brad Pitt to show up for that video shoot’ you have connection power. You may not have legitimate, coercive or reward power, but the fact that you have Brad Pitt’s cell phone number gives a certain amount of power.
Problems With These Traditional Power Sources
When we traditionally think about power, those five sources are the ones that typically pop into our minds. And they can absolutely work, especially for the right people. The problem is first that they’re tougher to acquire (not everyone has a corner office from which to employ titular power). And second is that not everyone is predisposed to want or handle those types of power.
More than 5,700 leaders have taken the online test “Are You Motivated By Power Or Achievement?” And based on the results of the test, we know that about 41% of leaders have a very strong desire for power, especially the traditional titular, coercive, reward, referent and connection powers. So, what if you’re in the 59% of people who are more motivated by achievement than power? (You can test yourself to find out). What if you’re not predisposed to titles and charisma? Can you still have power? The answer is a resounding Yes!
The Best Sources: Informational And Expert Power
Informational power is power that comes from having insight or information that others don’t have access to. When you’ve read something that other people haven’t read, when you’re more in touch with what’s happening in your industry, you have informational power. When people say, ‘let’s ask Mark, Mark knows what’s going on with this new regulation…’ you have informational power.
Expert power is when you can do things better than other people, when you have a particular area of expertise. This power might sound like: “I don’t know how to work XYZ software. Who’s our expert at that? Bob’s the expert, Sally’s the expert. Let’s go ask them because they know how to do it.”
What’s great about informational and expert power is that they’re the most accessible and useful sources of power.
Don’t we call our current age “the information age”? Well, in the information age, information and expertise tend to be the power. How do we have companies with billion dollar market valuations that are run by people in their twenties? Is it because they’re so well loved? Is it because they have Brad Pitt’s phone number? Is it because they took some path through an organizational hierarchy? No way.
It happens because they had informational power and expert power. Those are the pieces of power that people have been able to leverage, and it’s shaken our traditional notions of power.
We have informational sources all around us. They’re available and they’re free. All we have to do is avail ourselves of them and we’re going to find a tremendous source of untapped power. You don’t need to be the senior vice president of whatever with the big corner office to have power. Information in this day and age gives you an amazing source of power.