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Leadership – Sources of Power and Contingencies That Affect Its Potential

Leadership – Sources of Power and Contingencies That Affect Its Potential

Power is defined by experts as the degree of potential one person has to influence another person’s behavior, values, beliefs, or attitude. To quantitate the power one has is to determine the likelihood that one person will be influenced by another. There is a greater chance that one person will be influenced by the person with the greater power. Influence is the degree of change that actually occurs in one person, as a result of the influence tactics imposed by the influencer. Influence tactics are the behaviors used by the influencer to bring about change in the targeted person. Contrary to what many believe, power and influence is not relegated to leaders alone. Followers also have power to influence leaders. The power of both leaders and followers can be affected by situations and contingencies (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, 2012).

Power and influence are the tools that organizations use to accomplish their goals through human resources. Power is used to influence the attitude or behavior of another, so as to cause that person’s behavior or attitude to be congruent with the task that needs to be accomplished. There are five sources of power that both leaders and followers may have at their disposal: legitimate, reward, expert, referent, and informational power.

External sources of power

Legitimate power and reward power, with its reciprocal, coercive power, are external sources of power that originate from an organizational position. Legitimate power is authority granted to a person based upon the position they hold in an organization. Employees as well as managers can be the recipient of legitimate power that flows from their job description. Reward power is the authority one has over resources that can be used to reward others with extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, pay raises, and promotions. Rewards can also be intrinsic, which would include praises and recognition. Coercive power is the authority to bestow punishment, the opposite of reward power.

Internal sources of power

Expert power is an internal source of power that originates within the person. It is based on one’s special knowledge or skills that are considered valuable and needed by the organization in achieving its goals. It can also be possessed by followers as well as leaders (McShane, Von Glinow, 2012). Referent power is another internal source of power that is typically found in charismatic leaders. This power is represented by personal qualities in the beholder that causes others to trust, respect, and follow the beholder of these qualities.

Power contingencies

Power in and of itself does not always compute to influence. Four contingencies that play a role in determining the degree to which sources of power can be successfully converted to influence are substitutability, centrality, discretion, and visibility. Substitutability refers to the availability of alternatives, which decreases the value of the original source. It follows the principle of supply and demand. Centrality refers to the impact on the organization that would be caused by the absence of the power-holder. The greater the impact, the more leverage the power-holder has. The discretion contingency applies to the degree to which power-holders can make decisions that are not regulated and standardized by written procedures. If the organization can make the same decisions the power-holder is responsible for, through policies, the power-holder becomes less of an asset to the organization. Visibility refers to the awareness, especially by key people within the organization, of the resources the power-holder possesses. If no one knows you have the resources you have, those resources have no value to the organization, and therefore, wield no power.


McShane, S.L., Von Glinow, M.A. (2012). Organizational behavior. McGraw-Hill Irwin. New York, NY.

Hughes, R.L., Ginnett, R.C., Curphy, G.J. (2012). Leadership enhancing the lessons of Experience seventh edition. McGraw-Hill Irwin. New York, NY.