“Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Robert G. Ingersoll (1833 – 1899, NY), orator and author of Some Mistakes of Moses (1879) and known as The Great Agnostic
“Power tends to get to people’s heads. We’re not really trained to handle power well.” Nicole Lipkin, Ph.D., psychologist and author of What Keeps Leaders Up At Night (2013)
Power is sexy, seductive and sometimes addictive. Power is heady, power is magnetic, power brings perks—money and sex, fast cars and prime real estate, fame, prestige and respect. Perhaps it is evolutionary imperatives that drive certain personality types to seek out power more than others: males, alpha personalities and extroverts.
Powerful people, whether they obtained power through achievement, birthright, marriage, or fortunate friendships are favorably positioned to acquire leadership positions, through which they acquire still more power. Yet not everyone knows what to do with power once they have it. In 1959, psychologists John R.P. French and Bertram Raven identified sources of power that leaders commonly gain.
This power is derived from holding a leadership position in a hierarchical organization, e.g., Admiral or General in the military, Mayor or Senator in the political sector, CEO, Executive Director, or President in for-profit or not-for-profit sectors. Individuals who wield Formal Power have considerable control over the lives of others.
However, Formal Power is in reality transferred to the individual. Formal Power resides in the title and such power will be lost when the title is relinquished, whether by choice or by force. Only the organization’s founder(s) truly hold power (of the Expertise variety) because they’ve earned it by inventing or launching a significant, long-lasting product, service, or organization that has impact and influence. Earned power cannot be completely taken away by force, even if the organization ceases operations or is the target of a hostile takeover. The founder(s) will forever own the achievement.
Powerful people who desire to prolong or amplify their power by installing allies into positions of power are known as Kingmakers. These individuals are power brokers who sponsor and groom favored candidates for leadership positions, through which they will ascend to Formal Power. Kingmakers arrange for their protoges to receive training, high-profile assignments and other types of support that enable the chosen ones to receive credientials, experience, visibility and ultimately, inevitability.
The Kingmaker’s goal is to persuade both key influencers and rank-and-file members of the organization that their preferred candidate is deserving of a top leadership position. Developing trust and confidence in the candidate is essential, so that decision-makers will accept and nominate him/her for leadership and power.
Oftentimes, Kingmakers are themselves unable to ascend to the highest rungs of leadership, but they wield enough power and respect to influence decision-makers when future leaders are chosen.
In the 1970s, western societies entered the Information Age and in the 1990s entered the Knowledge Economy, both fueled by expertise and information. Expert Power is derived from the belief that others, especially thought leaders and powerful people, have about the superiority of a person’s capabilities. If enough of the right people feel that an individual has clearly superior knowledge and proficiency in a subject that society has decided is high-value, that person is considered an expert and s/he earns power.
Expert Power is held by architect Frank Gehry, whose talent for creating distinctive designs, in particular museum designs, has enabled institutions to become world-renowned attractions that have had game-changing impact on the communities, local and regional, in which they were built (see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain). Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen, co-founders of Microsoft, are another example of Expert Power. Their development of Windows software helped spark the microcomputer revolution and Microsoft became the largest personal computer software company in the world.
Expert Power is the easiest power to acquire and because it is earned, it cannot be taken away. Study hard and it may be yours! However, its holders must continually study, do research, make process improvements, or operational efficiencies in order to stay ahead of the curve and maintain their power.
Here we have the cult of personality, rock star appeal. Their supporters are sometimes more akin to fans, if not disciples. Integrity, discipline, talent, trust and likability are its pillars. “People with high Referent (Charismatic) Power can highly influence anyone who admires and respects them,” Lipkin says.
Their associates/ followers are very loyal and happy to do their bidding. People believe in those with Charismatic Power and will strive, and sometimes compete, to please them, in order to win favor and approval. Charismatic Power holders are tremendously persuasive and they excel at rallying supporters around a cause. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Ho Chi Minh used their Charismatic Power to launch successful civil rights movements on behalf of those who were systematically disenfranchised and abused (by those who held Formal Power that descended into Coercive Power).
Charismatic Power is self-generated and cannot be given, but the discovery of unethical behavior will break the spell and power will be lost forever.
This person derives power from whom s/he knows and to whom s/he has access. Relationship Power can be acquired from the powerful family into which one was born, marriage, or a fortunate friendship. Those with Relationship Power are wise to carefully nurture the relationship, to ensure that the gravy train continues.
The holders of Relationship Power are positioned to receive many benefits through their relationship(s). They glide through doors that lead to coveted business or employment opportunities. Proprietary information helps them find the house of their dreams or make the right investments. Introductions to still more powerful people amplify their benefits. They may use their Relationship Power to leapfrog into a position that gives them Formal Power.
This individual may have acquired power by any means, but s/he abuses that power. Unfortunately, we’ve all witnessed this type of scenario and it is enormously stressful for those who must live or labor in proximity to its toxic presence. Coercive power is harmful according to any metric. Abusive parenting is the most tragic example of Coercive Power.
This power is enforced and maintained with threats, intimidation, lies, manipulation and sometimes actual physical or sexual violence. Shockingly, those who elect to wield power in this fashion can become enormously successful and even admired by their peers (who sometimes know of their transgressions but find it convenient to ignore the problem).
A recent example of the long-term and highly rewarding use of Coercive Power can be found in reports about the now-disgraced and unemployed co-founder of Miramax Entertainment Harvey Weinstein, who became the prime focus of the #metoo movement. For 20 years Weinstein basked in the fawning favor of two U.S. Presidents, dozens of members of Congress, Hollywood and television stars and leaders of Fortune 500 companies, the result of sky-high box office grosses and robust profits earned by films and television programs produced by Miramax.
It’s all over now, though. Dr.Lipkin cautions, “There is not a time of day when you should use it. Ultimately, you can’t build credibility with coercive influence—you can think of it like bullying in the workplace.”
Happy Halloween and thanks for reading,
Image: “Off with her head!” The Queen of Hearts, here confronting Alice, embodies Coercive Power. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914, UK) for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)