Power and Leadership Are Different


The Difference between Power and Leadership

Leadership and Power are two very different concepts, and differentiating the two is quite important. There are about as many definitions for leadership as there are leaders. However, the general idea is that leadership is about influence and courage to do the right thing; by seizing the moment and affecting positive change, especially when others either cannot or do not. On the other hand, power is the capacity to direct or force the behaviors of others. Some might argue that the two ideas are similar. I would agree and then retort with the fact that similar does not mean same.

Leadership is dependent on power. However, power itself is not necessarily dependent on leadership. To explain this better, let’s look at credibility. Credibility in the followers’ eyes helps to establish personal power for the leader, which often results in more influence to wield. So, in other words, something as simple as credibility can help foster leadership – even outside of an empowered position. On the other hand, you could throw someone into a position of power (who has no credibility), but their position alone will still have influence.

It can be hard to wrap your head around. However, once you get this, it can definitely empower you. It is important to note that studies have shown that personal power, which followers often determine, is usually more important than positional power, which is often determined by the organization (Yukl & Falbe, 1991).

The Impact

I believe these concepts can significantly impact organizations, especially if there is either a perfect match or a complete mismatch of leadership and power. Remember that there are numerous types of power and leadership. For example, there are reward, expert, coercive, referent, and legitimate powers, and several leadership styles ranging from autocratic to Laissez-faire. So let’s see this in practice.

A mismatch might be the Democratic Leader that suddenly decided to rely on coercive power (via threats of firing, demotions, and so on). This leader would likely lose their credibility, and the organization would probably suffer a higher rate of turnover and lower productivity as a result. This is because few want to do anything for this leader, and their influence would be dramatically reduced.

On the other hand, we might have a Transformation Leader that relies on referent powers. In this case, we would likely see increased productivity because the teams would recognize both the positional authority and the effort to increase trust and mutual respect within the organization. Of course, this would also likely result in substantially greater personal power for the leader and, thus, even greater influence.

Studies that have investigated the relationships between leadership and power, as perceived by subordinates, support this idea. For example, Timothy R. Hinkin of McIntire School of Commerce University of Virginia and Chester A. Schriesheim from the University of Miami found that expert and referent powers were more positively-viewed as a means of influence in organizations (Hinkin & Schriesheim, 1990). As a result, we can see that workers work harder for those that use these types of power.

This is not to say that the different types of power are not useful in different and often particular situations. They are. However, knowing how we do something is just as important as knowing what we are doing. Leaders should be mindful of their approach and the tools they use, especially regarding the types of power and leadership styles available to them.

Did you enjoy this article? You might also enjoy my article titled “Defining Your Leadership Traits and Theories.


Hinkin, T. R., & Schriesheim, C. A. (1990). Relationships Between Subordinate Perceptions of Supervisor Influence Tactics and Attributed Bases of Supervisory Power. Human Relations43(3), 221–237. doi: 10.1177/001872679004300302

Yukl, G., & Falbe, C. M. (1991). Importance of different power sources in downward and lateral relations. Journal of Applied Psychology76(3), 416–423. doi: 10.1037//0021-9010.76.3.416