Powerful leaders who misuse power are eventually powerless

Paul Myers MBA

A discussion about leadership and power


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

There are dozens of definitions on the topic of power. Below are two for you to chew on in the context of human relations:

  1. Weber (1998) — Defined it as an attribute that an individual or a number of individuals posses “to realise their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action.”
  2. Russel (1938) — Classified power as a type of capital the affords the “ability to produce intended effects.”

From the array of definitions available, power simply exists when Entity A “exerts power over” Entity B, even when Entity A impacts Entity B “in a manner that’s contrary” to Entity B’s best interest (Dahl, 1957).


From a social perspective, power works best when derived from an inherent humanistic motive, like values.

Lukes (2002) said that “it is impossible to form” or agree with “a single definition of power.” By contrast, Moriss simplified it as follows:

Power is the “ability to act to bring about outcomes.”
— Moriss (2002)

In the 1970s two distinct power theories emerged:

  1. Firstly, power is defined by an “asymmetrical relationship between two or more” entities (Weber, 1972). Whereby one entity has power over another.
  2. Secondly, that power is based on the ability of an entity “to carry out specific outcomes (Pitkin, 1972). Those with the power to influence an outcome.

This article will explore three dimensions of power to better understand if the definitions discussed above are relevant today.

  1. Sources of leadership power.
  2. Leaders use of power and the relationship between both.
  3. How much power should leaders have?

Are you ready to power on? Let’s dive in.

№1 — Sources of Leadership Power

Galbraith (1983) reminds us that throughout human history “there are three sources of power” that humans utilise:

  1. Personality — The ability to persuade or create belief in a vision.
  2. Property — As well as income and wealth, provides the means to purchase compliance or submission.
  3. Organisation — Persuasion and submission for the greater good — the needs of a collective group or organisation.

Galbraith noted that “human development evolved from property and personality towards the organisational collective”, the main power source.

French and Raven (1957) proposed five sources of power:

  1. Coercive — The ability to punish others for insubordination, or non-compliance. This method is rebuffed in modern society.
  2. Reward — The ability to influence compliance through compensation. This is difficult to maintain as followers become motivated by the reward. Also, any shift in their belief, that their work isn’t being rewarded, compliance can dissipate.
  3. Expert — The rank or experience to command due to an individual’s superior skills and knowledge. In this scenario, power is not linked to the ability to reward, punish or according to hierarchical rank. Therefore it is more sustainable as long as expertise is valid.
  4. Referent — Grounded in the perception of others, such as the likeability of a leader. Referent power is the easiest to abuse because it doesn't rely on integrity and honesty alone.
  5. Legitimate — A position to make demands, expect obedience and compliance from others.

With these 5 sources in mind, how do leaders use power?

№2 — Leaders Use of Power

Raven (1993) identified three different applications of power.

  1. Rational | Non-Rational — Rational applies logic, “using reason and judgement to influence others.” Non-rational tries to evoke “emotional responses” through biased “misinformation.”
  2. Hard and Soft — Soft tactics lean on the relationship between a leader and followers, which can be indirect but interpersonal. Hard tactics are forceful by design with an over-reliance on metrics. The latter is less powerful than soft tactics and undesirable from a social perspective (Yukl et al, 1992)
  3. Unilateral and Bilateral — A bilateral use of power is evident through participative collaboration. Unilateral tactics involve little or no participation in the decision-making process from the target audience — followers.

The relationship between leadership and power

We know that power is the ability to exert influence over others. Therefore power and leadership go hand in hand because they both involve influence in order to attain objectives.

But power and leadership are not the same.

For instance, power is to influence by “withholding” reward, recognition, support or by dishing out “punishment” (Keltner et al, 2003).

Whereas leadership influence is demonstrated through the “inspirational” motivation of others, leading by “example” (Avolio & Bass, 1988).

Any influence that spawns from the abuse of power tends to be driven by personal gain, known as the WIIFM factor (Kipnis, 1976). This is a contradiction to leadership, yet all too often evident in leaders.

Leaders should exert influence for one reason only — to help the collective to achieve a shared goal.

The application of power does not necessarily evoke a positive impression in subordinates, but the effective deployment of leadership power does command respect, reciprocating trust in the process.

Leadership versus power-wielding fanatics

Burns (1978) made a distinction between “leaders and power wielders”.

Power wielders “prioritise their own motives, regardless of whether those motives are shared by the individuals they seek to influence.”

Leaders on the other hand:

“Mobilise resources so as to arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers.”

What a powerful distinction between leaders versus wielders of power.

№3 — How Much Power Should a Leader Have?

Every culture is “different” too, or at least has a “unique point of view” about power (Zhong et al, 2007). So it’s quite difficult to qualify or quantify the level of power that leaders should hold.

Followers give leaders permission of power.

Power is a dynamic force, but the amount of power that any leader should have is proportional to how much power their followers validate.

Final Thoughts

Power is an intangible energy that varies depending on the situation and the individuals involved. Kanter (1977) noted that successful “leaders rely more on personal power” than “positional power” associated with rank.

With respect to sources of power, Kanter implied that referent and expert power are crucial for effective leadership.

Most leaders have both positional and personal power, but the manner in which leaders deploy power determines their success, once executed with genuine empathy.

Leaders develop power quotient by helping others, applying a soft bilateral method of influence rather than a hard unilateral approach.

Power can have a positive or negative psychological impact on others, which can help or hinder a leader’s ability to succeed.

Positive leadership power

  • Power improves critical thinking
  • Power encourages teamwork
  • Power enhances optimism
  • Power motivates action

Negative leadership power

  • Power can harbour hubris
  • Power can cultivate betrayal
  • Power can objectify and bully others
  • Power can arrest empathy

John Dalberg-Acton said:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Whereas Abraham Lincoln said:

“If you want to test a man’s character — give him power.”

Leaders develop power by helping others, applying a soft bilateral method of influence rather than a hard unilateral approach. Therefore the definitions quoted above are still valid, well at least partly true.

The fact is that power is unique to every individual, highly dependent on you and me, regardless of rank. So the only question is this:

Does power corrupt people or do the corrupt seek out power to meet their own selfish needs?

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Innovative Entrepreneurial thinker & Dreamer. I write about Leadership, Startups, Business, & Personal Growth. Connect with me here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-m-ecommerce/


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