A Picture of The Bases of Organizational Power

At The Center for Leadership Studies, we define leadership as an attempt to influence and power as influence potential. In that regard, “leading” is the art/act of exercising/leveraging power. Historically the most significant research on organizational power was conducted by French & Raven in the 1950’s. In essence, they identified 5 “bases of organizational power.”

Images of The 5 Power Bases in Leadership

What Is Coercive Power

The leader’s ability to administer sanctions. coercive power

What Is Reward Power

The leader’s ability to provide rewards or formal recognition.reward power

What Is Legitimate Power

The leader’s decision making authority.legitimate power

What Is Referent Power

The degree of respect and trust followers develop for a leader.referent power

What Is Expert Power

The degree of subject matter knowledge the leader possesses.expert power

Two Other Power Bases From the 1960s – 1970s

What Is Connection Power

The degree of subject matter knowledge the leader possesses.connection power

What Is Information Power

The degree of subject matter knowledge the leader possesses.information power


Traditional Integrations With Power

If you categorize the style/approach options of leaders as “DIRECTIVE – PARTICIPATIVE – EMPOWERING”, and compare the way those leadership styles or approaches have traditionally been integrated with POWER, it would look something like this:




Updated Research

  • While all seven bases of power are still both valid and relevant, Legitimate; Referent and Expert Power are clearly distinguished drivers of all three leadership approaches
  • Coercive; Reward and Connection Power are effectively subsets of Legitimate Power and should primarily be leveraged when employing a DIRECTIVE approach
  • Information Power has taken on a new meaning. As opposed to being defined as a function of “access” it has come to be recognized as the ability to prioritize relevant information




Additional Thoughts on Power and Leadership

Legitimate Power

  • In Machiavellian terms Legitimate Power is “bestowed upon you”
  • With each promotion you receive (or advance you make) there is an increased level of responsibility, accountability and decision making authority that comes with it
  • For whatever reason, when leaders refuse to use the power that has been given to them, they frequently lose it altogether
  • Leaders that don’t make effective use of their Legitimate Power frequently lose Referent Power as well (i.e. the respect and trust of others)

Referent Power

  • Referent Power is earned, usually over a period of time, “one transaction at a time”
  • How long does it take for someone to earn your trust? Your respect? The answers (of course) will vary but rarely are trust or respect earned “overnight”
  • Conversely, while Referent Power takes time to build it can literally be lost in an instant
  • While all seven bases of power are important, a strong base of Referent Power is essential for any effective leader

Expert Power

  • Expert Power also accumulates over time
  • There is almost no limit to the creative strategies you can employ to increase your base of relevant expertise
  • Expert power certainly includes formal education but is largely defined by a leader’s base of experience
  • A significant component of Expert Power is being able to discern information “worth knowing” from information that is “irrelevant”


  1. Which base of power do you feel is your strongest source of influence potential?
    • Legitimate?
    • Referent?
    • Expert?
  2. Identify a tangible action you can take to increase the relative strength of the other two: