The Seven Types of Power And The One Type You Should Avoid

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Power is the “Id” of the leadership triumvirate. It is raw. It is blunt. We often view it as the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B.

That’s the problem with power. It’s too easy. It’s so easy, it becomes a crutch. And you know what it means to use a crutch? It means you can’t stand on your own two feet. It means you have to rely on some artificial device to accomplish your goals.

Does that sound bad? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

That’s the mystery of power. When used correctly, it can help propel you and your team to great heights. When abused, it can lead to distrust, dissension, and mutiny.

The search for power goes back to man’s very beginnings. Military leaders saw it as the path to victory, riches, and glory. Philosophers saw it for what it truly was.

Power isn’t about pushing others off the battlefield. In fact, power isn’t about our relationship with others, although it’s too easy (there’s that word again) to see it that way.

Power is all about what’s within us. That’s its deeper meaning. That’s what philosophers told us. That’s what spiritual leaders tell us.

In Book III, Chapter VI of his Nicomachean Ethics (ca. 350 BC), Aristotle writes:

“…therefore, Virtue is in our power. And so too is Vice: because wherever it is in our power to do it is also in our power to forbear doing, and vice versâ: therefore, if the doing (being in a given case creditable) is in our power, so too is the forbearing (which is in the same case discreditable), and vice versâ. But if it is in our power to do and to forbear doing what is creditable or the contrary, and these respectively constitute the being good or bad, then the being good or vicious characters is in our power.”

Aristotle lays out the sense that you control your actions. Those actions, depending on how you choose them, can represent the path of righteousness or wickedness.

The Bible speaks of this inherent dichotomy between good and evil as well as the concept of free will in Romans 7:21-23:

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”

And while the Bible reiterates man possesses the power of free will, Job 37:23 also suggests that God circumscribes His own power:

“The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.”

So, how and when should you employ power?

When dissecting the meaning of power, it’s important you understand the different types of power that exist.

From a position of power, you’ll be able to accomplish much. Power can help you attain or avoid something, to get to know others or get them to trust you, or simply to change your role in things. You will have plenty of opportunities to achieve your objective by exercising power.

Bertram Raven and John French identified five types of power in their 1958 seminal paper, “Legitimate Power, Coercive Power and Observability in Social Influence.” Raven later added a sixth type in his 1964 paper (published in 1965).

In her 1981 book The Power Handbook, Pamela Cuming takes the five original types of power, adds her own fifth and splits them into two categories: formal and informal.

Formal power derives from your position. It could be official (like an elected representative), or it could be something you’re born into (like a parent). It is often assigned power (like a CEO), but it could be won (like a gang leader). You might imagine it as a function of an organizational chart. It requires no subtle ability to influence. It is raw and unquestionable. Formal power does not mean subordinates will always carry out orders. If they don’t, however, it’s considered a mutiny or a revolt. The types of power that fall under the “formal” category are:

Reward: The leader is in a position to provide something desirable to the subordinate. This is the “carrot” and you have to be careful relying on this type of power lest you run out of carrots.

Coercive: The leader can take away something desirable to the subordinate. This is the “stick” side of power, and you have to be careful relying on this type of power because, once you are away, the mice will play.

Legitimate: This is a power that is assigned to you and usually comes with a title, (e.g., “President,” “General,” “CEO”). This form of power depends on both the leader and the subordinate to recognize the power relationship and the legitimacy of the position.

Informal power refers to someone who today we call “influencers.” You won’t find them on any organizational charts, but they can wield more power than those who find their names on those charts. It takes time, diligence, and effort to earn and then to maintain informal power. Unlike formal power, informal power cannot be passed from one person to another. The types of power that fall under the “informal” category are:

Expert: Think of teachers, scientists, and award-winning writers. People assume the role of leadership because they possess unique, differentiating, and valuable knowledge and skills. Often, however, these people start off as an adviser or support staff to a formal leader. They can rise to the level of an informal leader as more people see their expertise.

Referent: If you like someone, if they share your traits, your beliefs, and even your physical characteristics, you tend to align with them. Cuming refers to this as “speaking the same language.” This is the definition of friendship.

Associative: This is Cuming’s sixth, and it represents the weakest form of power. You might call this one the “Law of the Lemmings.” It’s why your mother asked you, “If all your friends jumped into the lake, would you jump in the lake?” Mom expects you to answer, “Of course not!” but you’re thinking, “Well, if everyone else is doing it…” Associative is an indirect power. Unlike Expert and Referent Powers, you yourself do not possess any personal abilities or traits. You’re merely relying on your association with someone else who is in a position of power. Think of a political aide, a lower-level corporate executive, or the bully’s best friend. This is a tricky power. It must be a subtle intimidation, lest you fall to the category of “name-dropper.”

Informational: This is Raven’s sixth type of power. Cuming doesn’t mention it. This particular power straddles the line of formal and informal, more so today with the advent of the information age than at the time Raven originally came up with the concept. Reference librarians represent the most obvious example of informational power. It used to be said, “he who controls the gates, controls the city.” With this type of power, it’s more appropriate to say, “he who controls the database, controls the information.” This differs from Expert Power in that it’s not the personal knowledge that matters (that’s Expert Power), it’s the access to that knowledge (the informational database).

Got it? There are six—no—seven types of power, one of which you should avoid (coercive), one category that requires enforcement (formal), which leaves one category (informal) with four types that have the greatest chance to help you achieve your goals.

Here’s the challenge with informal power, and Raven alludes to this in his 1964 paper. He says, “…informational influence may not be feasible until the influence has acquired an appropriate bode of knowledge.” Raven suggests leaders adopt a strategy that incorporates multiple types of power.

You have a shortcut to this. It’s called authority. That may sound “formal,” but, as we shall see, there are many types of authority.


  1. […] types give you an edge and which one should you avoid? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “The Seven Types of Power And The One Type You Should Avoid” to take your first step on the journey of […]

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