Real leadership power comes from an honorable character and from the exercise of certain power tools and principles. Yet most discussions of leadership focus on the genetic “great man” theories, personality “trait” theories, or behavioral “style” theories. These theories have had more explanatory than predictive value. They may explain why a particular leader emerged and survived, but they neither help us predict the future leaders nor help us cultivate the capacity to lead. 

Stephen Covey believes that a more fruitful approach is look at followers, rather than leaders, and to assess leadership by asking why followers follow. 

Three Types of Power

The reasons followers follow are varied and complex, but they can be examined, according to Blaine Lee, from three different perspectives, each of which has different motivational and psychological roots. 

At one level, followers follow out of fear – they are afraid of what might happen to them if they do not do what they are asked to do. This may be called coercive power. The leader in this case has created a fear in the followers that either something bad is going to happen to them or something good will be taken away from them if they do not comply. So out of fear of potentially adverse consequences, they acquiesce and “get along by going along” or by giving “lip service loyalty,” at least initially. But their commitment is superficial and their energies can quickly turn to sabotage and destruction when “no one is looking” or when the threat is no longer present.  

A second level of responding suggests that followers follow because of the benefits that come to them if they do. This may be called utility power because the power in the relationship is based on the useful exchange of goods and services. The followers have something the leader wants (time, money, energy, personal resources, interest, talent, support, and so on), and the leader has something they want (information, money, promotions, inclusion, camaraderie, security, opportunity, and the like). These followers operate with the belief that the leader can and will do something for them if they maintain their part of the bargain by doing something for the leader. Much of what happens in the normal operation of organizations, from billion-dollar corporations to daily family living, is fueled by utility power.

A third level of responding is different in kind and degree from the other two. It is based on the power some people have with others because others tend to believe in them and in what they are trying to accomplish. They are trusted. They are respected. They are honored. And they are followed because others want to follow them, want to believe in them and their cause, and want to do what the leader desires. “This is not blind faith, mindless obedience, or robotic servitude; this is knowledgeable, wholehearted, uninhibited commitment.” This is principle-centered power.

Nearly everyone has experienced this type of power at some time in their lives, as a follower, in their relationship with a teacher, employer, family member, or friend who has profoundly and significantly affected their life. It may have been someone who gave them an opportunity to succeed or excel, or encouraged them when things looked bleak, or just was available when needed. Whatever they did, they did because they believed in us, and we reciprocate with respect, loyalty, commitment, and willingness to follow, almost without condition or restriction. 

Each of these types of power has a different foundation, and each leads to different results.

The Impact of Power

Coercive power is based on fear in both the leader and the follower. Leaders tend to lean on coercive power when they are afraid they would not get compliance. It is the “big stick” approach. It is an approach that few publicly support but may use, either because it seems justified in the face of other, bigger threats hovering over the leader or it is the expedient thing to do and seems to work at the time. But its effectiveness is an illusion.

The leader who controls others through fear will find that the control is reactive and temporary. It is gone when the leader or the leader’s representative or controlling system is gone. It often mobilizes the creative energies of followers to unite and resist in new, as yet uncontrolled ways. “Coercive power imposes a psychological and emotional burden on both leaders and followers. It encourages suspicion, deceit, dishonesty, and, in the long run, dissolution. A Russian philosopher, has observed, “You only have power over people as long as you do not take everything away from them. But when you have robbed a man of everything, he is no longer in your power – he is free again.”

Most organizations are held together by utility power. Utility power is based on a sense of equity and fairness. As long as followers feel they are receiving fairly for what they are giving, the relationship will be sustained. The compliance that is based on utility power tends to look more like influence than control. Leaders are followed because it if functional for the followers. It gives them access to what the leader controls, through position or expertness or charisma. The nature of followership when based on utility power is still reactive, but the reaction tends to be positive rather than negative.

It is being increasingly acknowledged that relationships based on utility power often lead to individualism rather than teamwork and group effectiveness, as each individual is reinforced for paying attention to his own perspective desires.

In addition, a form of situational ethics is fostered, in which individuals are continually deciding, in the absence of shared organizational values, what is best and right and fair. At its worst utility power mirrors the elements of justice prominent in a litigious society, with courts of law forcing fairness in takeovers and bankruptcies. “At its best utility power reflects a willingness to stay in a relationship, whether business or personal, as long as it has a payoff for both parties.”

It is believed that principle-centered power is rare. It is the mark of quality, distinction, and excellence in all relationships. It is based on honor, with the leader honoring the follower and the follower choosing to contribute because the leader is also honored. The hallmark of principle-centered power is sustained, proactive influence. Power is sustained because it is not dependent on whether or not something desirable or undesirable happens to the follower. “To be proactive is to continually make choices based on deeply held values. And principle-centered power is created when the values of the followers and the leader overlap. Principle-centered power is not forced; it is invited, as the personal agendas of both leader and follower are encompassed by a larger purpose.” 

Principle-centered power occurs when the cause or purpose or goal is believed in as deeply by the followers as by the leaders. Hans Selye comments, “Leaders are leaders only as long as they have the respect and loyalty of their followers.”

Control is apparent with principle-centered power, but the control is not external; it is self-control. Power is created when individuals perceive their leaders as honorable, so they trust them, are inspired by them, believe deeply in the goals communicated by them, and desire to be led. Because of this sense of purpose and vision, their character, their essential nature, and what they represent, leaders can build principle-centered power in their relationships with their followers. With principle-centered power, ethical behavior is encouraged because loyalty is based on principles as they are manifested in persons. 

Ethics is ultimately grounded in a commitment to doing right things, and principle-centered power elicits a willingness to risk doing right things, because they are valued, they are modeled by the leader, and they are sanctioned by the vision clarified by the leader.  


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