How to Build Your Power & Lead Effectively

6 minutes read


I’m not talking about the amount of electricity your smartphone needs or the strength it takes to pull an all-nighter to meet a deadline.

I’m talking about the abstract way people influence one another; how we shape another person’s beliefs, behavior, or attitude.

Power is a tool. You can create or take away power.

As a default, power is neutral. We can use it for good or bad. It’s not about who has it but rather what we do with it.

People who use their power for good inspire us. A bakery driver gave out bread to other drivers stuck on an icy highway for hours. A judge imprisons a child abuser. A group of people comes together to clean up a few miles of beach.

We can also use power in harmful ways. The friend who blackmails you. Sexual assault. Police brutality. Power can get to our heads even when it’s an illusion. Watch The Standford Prison Experiment for an eye-popping example.

We need to understand where power comes from before effectively developing our own.

Five Sources Of Power

In the late 1950s, John French and Bertram Raven studied power. They narrowed down stories and research to five core categories of power: referent, expert, legitimate, reward, and coercive power.

You can develop each power base in different ways.

Referent Power

Tell me about your favorite teacher or boss.

Most likely, you felt like you could trust them. You wanted them to like you, or at the very least, to maintain a positive relationship with them.

That is referent power.

When another person wants our approval, we have this kind of power.

Referent power is the most effective way to influence someone.

If someone likes you, they’re more likely to listen to you even if they disagree. Have you ever listened to someone you didn’t like? Did you take their advice? I know I didn’t.

It’s worse when someone thinks they are the cream of the crop or has us fooled. Referent power does not work if you are perceived as inauthentic or cocky. Ironically, feeling powerless often breeds this kind of attitude.

We need to be careful not to let our relationships control our values. Some relationships can make it easy for us to do bad things. Political scandals, sexual harassment at work, racism, and other corrupt behavior mainly happen because people do not speak up for fear of losing those relationships.

It can also encourage unhealthy habits. Teenagers pick up smoking because they want to be well-liked by their peers, even though we all know how deadly smoking is.

Word-of-mouth (or words-of-hands in some Deaf communities) marketing is more effective than other mediums. It is why social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok thrive.

People want to connect.

When we build connections, we become more influential.

You can grow referent power by:

  • Building your emotional intelligence
  • Being authentic
  • Being honest and trustworthy
  • Building confidence
  • Having an open mind
  • Using effective communication skills
  • Having empathy
  • Having a positive view of people
  • Spending quality time with others
  • Sharing appreciation for others
  • Being accountable for your actions

Expert power

Expert power comes from a deep understanding of a subject.

You are seen as an expert when you know your stuff inside and out.

Everyone listens to a senior surgeon when life-saving surgery is needed, even against the requests of the patient’s family.

Forensic scientists are used in courtrooms to sway the jury.

Experience is more important than formal education when getting a job. This is because hands-on experience allows you to build more authentic expertise. Many business leaders we know and love did not finish high school or college.

Expert power is not only produced by perfection. Failure strengthens your expertise.

Thomas Edison’s teachers said Edison was dumb. His first two bosses fired him. He made 1,000 failed versions before creating the world’s first light bulb.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan

Knowing your stuff is essential. Communicating in an authentic way makes you more influential.

The internet has changed how to choose a product. Before the internet, a trained salesperson would convince us which one to choose. Now, we look for real stories from real users. We believe our peers more than product engineers or sales professionals.

This is why the CDC had a hard time getting everyone on the same page regarding COVID risk management.

Expert power alone is not enough to influence people.

Authenticity amplifies expertise. Referent and expert power create a power team (see what I did there?). Look at Hamish Brewer or Brene Brown for inspiring examples.

Grow your expert power by:

  • Becoming intimate with a specialized set of knowledge
  • Have years of experience (research suggests at least 10,000 hours) in a specific skill
  • Get professional development training
  • Gaining degrees or certificates
  • Attending conferences
  • Staying on top of current trends
  • Sharing publications or vlogs about what you know
  • Using effective communication skills
  • Delegating or asking for help in areas you are not strong in
  • Portraying confidence (Fake it until you make it works)
  • Not being threatened by others’ expertise

Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is what we usually call authority. This power source is based on the belief that people can get what they want by following specific rules and behavior.

Legitimate power comes from the organization you’re in. Many organizations have a natural hierarchy.

Power is relative to where you stand in this context. Managers have more power than their employees. However, the CEO has more power than the manager.

An organization is not always formal. An organization can be abstract such as your circle of friends or cultural group. Parents hold legitimate power in a family unit but less than their own parents.

There are a lot of people who have this kind of power. You can tell they have control because of their job title, fame, or if the majority turns to them for advice.

Charli D’Amelio or Khabane Lame hold legitimate power within the TikTok community because of their following. Who do you think a marketing manager wants to ask about creating viral videos?

These kinds of roles help you be more likely to be listened to.

You can lose legitimate power as quickly as you gain it. Look at Harvey Weinstein and Chris Harrison, for example. Focusing on legitimate power is not enough to be considered influential in the long term.

You can grow legitimate power by:

  • Earning promotions within your organization (it can be as simple as being a moderator on Reddit)
  • Understanding and managing your position and privileges in a healthy way
  • Confidentiality carrying out your responsibility
  • Delegating responsibility that is no longer yours
  • Understand your organizational values, strategy, and other resources
  • Share these resources for the greater good
  • Develop your listening skills
  • Being the talk of your community, whether it’s in the news, blogs, vlogs, or social media platforms
  • Strengthening your other power bases, especially referent power

Reward Power

Reward power taps into the appeal of positive incentives.

It’s sharing good things.

This category is often associated with the ability to give out resources such as money, gifts, and perks. Reward power is almost always limited to high positions within organizations or groups.

A prominent example of reward power is a manager who gives out bonuses, preferred work shifts, or even promotions. This kind of power can also be seen in a foundation manager who awards nonprofit organizations grants.

A drug lord who gives their right-hand person a mansion and half a million dollars also applies this power base. At the micro-level, a person giving a houseless person a couple of dollars activated this power base.

Reward power can be part of a transactional relationship that builds referent power. For example, social media platforms have learned how to hack users’ minds by rewarding likes, comments, and similar activities. Studies show that this kind of hacking creates a sense of obligation to do more of what the power seeker (i.e., Meta, TikTok, etc.) wants.

Intrinsic rewards are more effective than extrinsic rewards.

It is more meaningful to motivate a person from the inside out, such as a sense of accomplishment, positive self-talk, and doing something you love. Extrinsic rewards such as compliments, likes, or bonuses build up the person from the outside and are less effective.

You can grow reward power by:

  • Understanding and applying research toward positive incentives
  • Understanding your colleagues and audience
  • Being plentiful with praise and appreciation
  • Securing resources for the organization
  • Referring others to opportunities
  • Building cultural leadership to better understand the application of reward power

Coercive Power

Coercion is the use of force or threats toward undesired consequences.

It is a threat of a bad thing.

Most of us think of coercive power as a form of punishment. And it is one way to use it. A parent can ground their child. The HOA association fines a neighbor who left their holiday lights out too long. A teacher can fail a student.

Sometimes that annoying pop-up ad on a website can feel like a form of coercive power.

Another way to use coercive power is to convince others to do something right or better. For example, deadlines are a form of coercive power. Many modern-day solutions exist because of deadlines.

Laws that fight harassment or discrimination in the workplace have improved conditions for many. Peer pressure and fear of DUI charges have drastically cut down drunk driving. What about forcing tobacco companies to carry out education initiatives to cut down on smoking?

This power base should be used appropriately and strategically to maximize effectiveness.

Remember Newton’s Third Law. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Too much force can be counterproductive. Any person who feels directly threatened is more likely to rebel or lose respect for the person holding power.

You can harness coercive power by:

  • Understanding and applying research toward negative incentives
  • Understanding distributive, procedural, interactional justice
  • Understanding your colleagues and audience
  • Being proactive and transparent on expectations and consequences
  • Following through with results appropriately
  • Practicing nonviolent communication
  • Establishing boundaries

Each power source has its own role in allowing you to be a better leader. A healthy mix can improve your effectiveness in creating positive changes in the world.

It all starts with self-awareness.

Think about an organization you want to be more influential in. What is your role? What kind of power do you have? What kind of power should you build to be more effective?

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment or tag me at @katiemurch on most social media platforms.