Typology of Power


Recommended reading: Confucius, Machiavelli, and Rousseau: Studies in Contrast. Because “contrast” they do. One element presented in the reading was Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter’s typology of power. For clarification, typology is basically the study and interpretation of different types.

John Kotter’s typology of power is the study and interpretation of different types or styles of power. Specifically, it presents five areas of power, what they are at their foundation, and potentially or ideally, how they can be used. These include; Reward power, Coercive power, Legitimate power, Expert power, and Referent power. These are important to understand as Kotter suggests that by understanding these different types of power, one can operate closer to their fullest potential. (Kotter, 1977)

Legitimate power is the power that a leader has due to the position they hold. Examples of this may include positions that people are elected, selected, or appointed to, such as politicians or executive positions at a large firm. More often than not, followers will likely comply with orders provided because it is generally understood that the power to provide such orders conforms to the law or the establishment’s rules. (Random House 2010) This type of power is best utilized confidently, politely, and in a way that enforces compliance for the organization.

Coercive power is usually a double-edged sword. This type of power comes from the threat of force against a follower to obtain obedience. In other words, it is based on intimidation. An example of this type of power might be how the Department of Homeland Security intelligence assessment equates gun owners with violent terrorists. (DHS, 2009) This may deter some potential gun owners from giving up their Constitutional Rights in order to avoid being viewed as a “domestic terror threat.” However, this is not a good form of power to utilize. It has been said that excessive use of this kind of power “unleashes unpredictable and destabilizing forces which can ultimately undermine the leader using it.” (Mind Tools, 2013)

Reward power is basically the power to provide benefits. This is often key when leaders attempt to oversell a particular task or goal. The leader may provide some benefit in exchange for obedience or extra effort. An example of this may be an organization providing a bonus for hitting specific quotas or a government official distributing money from the treasury in exchange for votes. It’s not always a tangible reward, however. Sometimes it can be the promise of social, emotional, or spiritual reward. (Dr. Petress, 2003) The crucial element for the most effective use of this type of power, however, is that the reward should be desired by the follower and something the leader can provide upon completion of the task.

Expert power derives from the idea that one is knowledgeable or has superior skills in regard to the organization or tasks at hand. (Rippey 2001) This is often accomplished by observation of demonstration, by reputation, or by offering the appropriate credentials certifying expertise such as a degree or license. This type of power is utilized by a “lead by example” position and is often followed without question of authority. This can be both good and bad, however. For example, a doctor will more than likely have Expert power. People will listen to a doctor and follow the advice almost without question. However, if a doctor has not kept up with the ever-changing information in the medical field, their knowledge may become outdated and archaic.

Referent power is a unique kind of power. This power is derived from a “guilt by association” position. (Dr. Petress, 2003) It could be attributed to something as simple as a person’s resources or charisma. This type of power is often superficial and will more than likely be limited in scope but has the potential to be long-lasting. A good example that illustrates both sides of this might be in looking at a drug-dealing gang. The gang has access to the drugs and ultimately receives the bulk of the money. The gang makes their lifestyle look glamorous. From multiple sides, some seek money, drugs, or just the association. The followers often conform to the norms within the gang, and members individually are either respected or feared accordingly. However, this power usually derives from the leader who may have access to the drugs or is considered “tough” by the followers, etc. In the end, though, the stigma attached to the association remains even after the association has ceased.

Confucius, Machiavelli, and Rousseau all understood the power in various forms. However, had each been privy to Kotter’s typology of power and been asked to select their preferred methods, their preferences would have varied significantly. Undoubtedly, they would have selected more than one as their preferred form.

Confucius would have more than likely chosen Legitimate power and Expert power as his preferred leadership methods due in great part to his belief in education and virtue. It seems Legitimate power and Expert power lend well to these ideals as they are derived from knowledge, skill, and acknowledgment of hierarchy. Confucius would have avoided Coercive power as this idea basically contrasts with his fundamental beliefs. He may have even avoided Reward power, as the journey alone would probably be considered reward enough.

Machiavelli’s preferred methods of leadership and power would have more than likely been found in Legitimate power and Coercive power. This is largely due to the idea that a leader is a leader by position and that his influence should be recognized as powerful and something to fear so followers would appreciate the times in which he is merciful. Machiavelli would have probably avoided Referent power and Reward power as it mattered little to him who was associated with the power and cared not if anyone liked it. For instance, the prince was the prince because he was the prince. That was it; like it or get hurt.

Rousseau’s preferred methods would have been that of Referent power and Reward power. This is true because his idealistic utopia would not or could not exist without the association of like-minded individuals. It also couldn’t be achieved without the promise of reward, as much of what he would have liked would have been in sacrifice. Rousseau probably would have avoided Coercive power and Legitimate power because Rousseau believed that everyone was equally basic and that having any power over another was inherently wrong.

In the end, each form of power can be as practical or useful as it can be damaging or counterproductive, selectively and collectively. When utilized strategically, however, a leader can employ variations of each kind of power and be highly effective at gaining increased commitment from their followers and new supporters moving forward.

Be sure to read my article titled “Strategic Planning – Strategy 101.


Kotter, J. (1977, July). Power, dependence, and effective management. Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from http://hbr.org/1977/07/power-dependence-and-effective-management/ar/pr
legitimate. (n.d.) Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary. (2010). Retrieved September 7 2013 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/legitimate
DHS. Extremism and Radicalization Branch, Homeland Environment Threat Analysis Division, FBI. (2009). rightwing extremism: Current economic and political climate fueling resurgence in radicalization and recruitment (IA-0 257 -09). Retrieved from The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) website: http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/rightwing.pdf
Mind Tools. (2013). Coercive power – not to be relied on. Retrieved from http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_91.htm
Dr. Petress, K. (2003). Power: Definition, typology, descri ption, examples, and implications . Retrieved from http://www.uthscsa.edu/gme/documents/PowerDefinitionsTypologyExamples.pdf
Rippey. D.R. (2001). Confucius, Machiaveeli, and Rousseau: Studies in Contrast Hartwick classic leadership cases.