Leadership Styles and Bases of Power

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Editor: Sonya D. Hill
Date: 2012
Encyclopedia of Management
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 552

Leadership Styles and Bases of Power

Studies of leadership styles are diverse in nature and multiple definitions have been offered. However, leadership style can be defined broadly as the manner and approach of providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating people.

Bases of power refer to the methods that managers and leaders utilize to influence their employees. When examining bases of power, the concept of authority must also be considered. These two are interconnected attributes tied to the behavior of superiors over subordinates. In their article, “Are There No Limits To Authority?,” David Knights and Darren McCabe explain that “power should be understood to be a condition of social relations. Thus, it is erroneous to ask who has power. Instead, it is necessary to explore how power is exercised.”

In turn, the nature of how power is exercised is a workable definition for authority. In short, authority and power are intertwined, with power being the ability to do things or have others do what one has ordered while authority is the foundation on which that power is built.


Three different styles of leadership were identified by Kurt Lewin, renowned social scientist, in 1939: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. His results indicated that the democratic style is superior to the other two styles. Attributes of each style are outlined below.

  • The authoritarian makes all decisions, independent of member's input. One famous example of an authoritarian leader is Anna Wintour, an editor at fashion magazine Vogue whose absolute power was so famous that a documentary called The September Issue was made about her in 2009. The authoritarian leadership style requires a strong authority figure who dictates direction, leaving members in the dark about future plans. The authority figure selects which members will work collaboratively and determines solely the work tasks for the teams. This leader type is very personal in his praise and criticisms of each member but does not actively participate with the group, unless demonstrating to the group. The authority figure is unfriendly or impersonal but not necessarily openly hostile. Page 553  |  Top of Article
  • The democratic leader welcomes team input and facilitates group discussion and decision making. This leader type shares plans with the group and offers multiple options for group consideration. The democratic leader encourages members to work freely with each other and leaves division of tasks to the group. This leader is objective in praise and criticism, and joins group activities without over-participating.
  • The laissez-faire leader allows the group complete freedom for decision making, without participating himself. This leader type provides materials and offers to assist only by request. The laissez-faire leader does not participate in work discussions or group tasks. This leader does not offer commentary on members' performance unless asked directly, and does not participate or intervene in activities.

Since 1939, Lewin's research has been the basis for many further research studies and articles on organizational behavioral in theory and in action. Each leadership style can be appropriate depending on the environment within which it is implemented, the members of the group (employees), and the goals or tasks that are being undertaken by the group. Leaders may adjust their style of leadership to fit certain tasks, groups, or settings.

An authoritarian leadership style can be effective when a situation calls for expedited action or decision making. Group members who are not self-motivated, who prefer structure, and appreciate significant direction and monitoring may thrive under this style.

A democratic leadership style allows for multiple viewpoints, inputs, and participation, while still maintaining control and the leadership role. A quality democratic leader recognizes each member's strengths and effectively elicits the best performance from each member, all the while guiding and leading effectively. A challenge for the democratic leader is to recognize that not all tasks need to be handled by the group; that the leader should appropriately address some issues alone.

A laissez-faire leadership style works best when group members are highly skilled and motivated, with a proven track record of excellence. This hands-off approach can allow these capable members to be productive and effective. The laissez-faire style is interpreted by the members as a sign of confidence and trust in their abilities and further empowers them to be successful and motivated.


Five bases of power were identified by French and Raven in 1960, which laid the groundwork for most discussions of power and authority in the latter half of the twentieth century. These five types of power are coercive, legitimate, reward, referent, and expert. Power can be manifested through one or more of these bases.

Coercive Power. Coercive power rests in the ability of a manager to force an employee to comply with an order through the threat of punishment. Coercive power typically leads to short-term compliance, but in the long run produces dysfunctional behavior.

Coercion reduces employees' satisfaction with their jobs, leading to lack of commitment and general employee withdrawal. In the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, coercive power has seen a decline in the last 50 years. Several reasons contribute to this, ranging from the legal erosion of employment-at-will and the awareness of employee violence or other forms of retaliatory behavior.

Equally important as an effect on the receding popularity of coercion as a basis of power has been the influence of quality management theorists, such as Philip Crosby and W. Edwards Deming. They suggested that there is a decline in productivity and creativity when coercive power is employed. The use of coercive power results in an atmosphere of insecurity or fear. In spite of this insight, coercion as a base of power continues to play a role even in those organizations influenced by theories of quality management.

In times of economic crisis or threats to the survival of the organization at large, coercion may come to the forefront. Coercive power may also materialize as organizations attempt to streamline their operations for maximum efficiency. If employees must be fired, those who fail to conform to the organizational goals for survival will be the most likely candidates for termination. The threat of termination for failure to comply, in turn, is coercive power.

Legitimate Power. Legitimate power rests in the belief among employees that their manager has the right to give orders based on his or her position. For example, at the scene of a crime, people usually comply with the orders of a uniformed police officer based simply on their shared belief that he or she has the predetermined authority to give such orders. In a corporate setting, employees comply with the orders of a manager who relies on legitimate power based on the position in the organizational hierarchy that the manager holds. Although employees may comply based on legitimate power, they may not feel a sense of commitment or cooperation.

Reward Power. Reward power, as the name implies, rests on the ability of a manager to give some sort of reward to

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employees. These rewards can range from monetary compensation to improved work schedules. Reward power often does not need monetary or other tangible compensation to work when managers can convey various intangible benefits as rewards.

When reward power is used in a flexible manner, it can prove to be a strong motivator, as Crosby, Deming, and others have shown. Still, when organizations rely too rigidly on rewards, the system can backfire. Employees may be tempted to unethically or even illegally meet the quotas to which overly rigid reward systems may be tied.

Another problem associated with rewards as a base for power is the possibility that the rewards will divert employees' attention from their jobs and focus their attention instead on the rewards dangled before them.

Referent Power. Referent power derives from employees' respect for a manager and their desire to identify with or emulate him or her. In referent power, the manager leads by example. Referent power rests heavily on trust. It often influences employees who may not be particularly aware that they are modeling their behavior on that of the manager and using what they presume he or she would do in such a situation as a point of reference.

The concept of empowerment in large part rests on referent power. Referent power may take considerable time to develop and thus may not prove particularly effective in a workforce with a rapid turnover of personnel.

One common error in applying referent power in cross-cultural situations, however, comes in misunderstanding the ways in which employees identify with their superiors. Since identification with one's superior in the United States is hampered by symbols of legitimate power (for example, titles or dress), those who advocate its use encourage managers to dress down to the level of their employees and use terms such as “facilitator” and “coach” coupled with “associates” and “group members” rather than “boss” and “subordinates.”

In societies such as Argentina or Mexico, symbols of legitimate power may not readily hamper identification, whereas American-style egalitarianism may diminish the respect employees feel for the manager. In short, U.S. employees are likely to identify with managers by personally liking them and feeling liked in return, whereas Argentine and Mexican employees are likely to identify with managers by respecting them and feeling respected in return. Thus, referent power may be more cross-culturally variable than the other four bases of power laid out by French and Raven.

Woodruff Imberman describes how specialized training is now used in the grocery industry to train Latino immigrants in the democratic supervisory techniques of U.S. managers. In the past, when these men and women were promoted to supervisory positions, they tended to rely heavily on the Latino model of authoritarianism under which they were raised. The managerial style hindered their ability to effectively supervise employees or to garner the respect they were seeking. To remedy this situation, specialized training programs are now utilized. The end result is effective and confident supervisors, motivated workers, higher productivity, less waste, and better customer service.

Expert Power. Expert power rests on the belief of employees that an individual has a particularly high level of knowledge or highly specialized skill set. Managers may be accorded authority based on the perception of their greater knowledge of the tasks at hand than their employees.

Interestingly, in expert power, the superior may not rank higher than the other persons in a formal sense. Thus, when an equipment repair person comes to the CEO's office to fix a malfunctioning piece of machinery, no question exists that the CEO outranks the repair person; yet regarding the specific task of getting the machine operational, the CEO is likely to follow the orders of the repair person.

Expert power has within it a built-in point of weakness: as a point of power, expertise diminishes as knowledge is shared. If a manager shares knowledge or skill instruction with his or her employees, in time they will acquire a similar knowledge base or skill set. As the employees grow to equal the manager's knowledge or skills, their respect for the superiority of his expertise diminishes.

The result is either that the manager's authority diminishes or that the manager intentionally chooses not to share his or her knowledge base or skill set with the employees. The former choice weakens the manager's authority over time, while the latter weakens the organization's effectiveness over time.


Traditional theories such as those of J. P. R. French, Jr., and B. Raven, as well as the empowerment advocates of the 1980s, such as Crosby and Deming, have tended to approach power and authority as one-dimensional. By contrast, several experts have more recently begun to reconfigure how power is viewed to a more multidimensional interweaving of relations or conflicting needs.

For example, Robert M. Grant, Rami Shani, and R. Krishnan described TQM's consumer-focused goals and traditional management's economic model of the firm as two inherently opposed paradigms. Because these two paradigms are grounded in two independent sources of authority, they produce different but coexisting dimensions of power.

It has also been argued that authority is culturally based. Geert Hofstede, in one of the most thorough empirical surveys on cross-cultural influences on work-related

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values, delineated marked differences in what he called “power distance.”

For Hofstede, power distance is the degree to which members of a culture feel comfortable with inequalities in power within an organization; that is, the extent to which one's boss is seen as having greater power than oneself. Thus, views regarding both power and leadership shape the conception of authority within an organization. And because both these facets of authority conception differ drastically from culture to culture, authority itself is conceived of differently from society to society.

Consequently, no single dimension of authority and power is likely to hold equally for all managers and employees in a multicultural domestic setting or in the multicultural milieu of the multinational corporation.

Finally, one can also argue against the one-dimensional view of authority and power when they are viewed not as independent elements in the abstract, but as intrinsically derived from relations within the organization. Power and authority are multidimensional because relationships are by nature multidimensional.

Theorists believe that leadership is a function influenced by the leader, the followers, and the situation. Fred Fiedler presented this in the Leadership Contingency Model in the early 1970s, and it is still studied nearly four decades later. Fiedler suggested that the most successful leadership outcome is a result of matching the leader to the situation. Therefore, most valuable leadership in an organization may be those leaders who have proven they are able to adapt and lead successfully in a variety of situations. The optimal organization/leadership style, therefore, is contingent upon various internal and external constraints.

The ways in which managers influence their employees and encourage them to be productive depend on many variables, including the personality of the leader, the skills of the group/employees, the task or assignment at hand, or the group dynamics and personalities of group members. As with leadership styles, each base of power has its place in management and can prove effective in the right setting and right circumstances.

While most literature on leadership emphasizes the influence of the leader on the group, the opposite is also true. Groups can influence leader behavior by selectively responding to specific leader behaviors. External factors—such as organizational policies, group norms, and individual skills and abilities—also influence leaders. The followers' skills and abilities and the nature of the task itself affect the leader's influence.

Along with leadership styles, there is much similarity and terminology crossover in the study of leadership theories; researchers should examine both terms in the available literature to access the full spectrum of knowledge on the topic of leadership.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4016600168