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We’re in the midst of a fundamental shift in leadership

Influence is the new power, and managers have a lot to learn from activists and thought leaders.

We’re in the midst of a fundamental shift in leadership
[Photo: siridhata/Getty Images; Ko Hong-Wei / EyeEm]

I did not have leadership potential. So I decided to become a thought leader. 

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OK, kidding. Some people have told me I don’t have a leadership potential, but that simply meant I did not fit their idea of leadership. However, leadership comes in many forms, and right now, we are in the midst of a major change. Old models are no longer working, employees are revolting against surveillance and presenteeism, and managers who can’t adapt are resigning or retiring. Many examples of new leadership don’t fit the stereotypical image of positional power. 

Let me give you an example: For several years, I was responsible for ensuring that university professors —none of whom reported to me—did the data and reporting work none of them signed up for when they took the job. I did not just survive; I enjoyed the work and the collectively produced results. How? The same way as many years earlier, as a teenage activist, I organized our neighborhood to protect the local lake. The only way to lead effectively when you can’t force people to do something is to be an example, share information, and lead from a place of caring.

If the true goal of leadership is motivating people to achieve goals and effect change, the old model of using positional authority may never have been the most effective. A different approach is seen in many examples. With no positional authority, young environmental activists change legislation and promote environmentally friendly products. Thought leaders like Brené Brown  and Amy Edmondson created vulnerability and psychological safety revolutions in the workplace. And informal leaders within organizations have always accomplished much work without strong-arming people into compliance.

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Effective leadership is not the same as formal authority. Here’s why:

The bases of power

Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven‘s time-tested framework described five bases of interpersonal power, or the ability to effect change. They disagreed on the sixth—informational power. French believed that information produced influence, but not power. Raven felt that informational influence, in its potential, is power, and included informational power in his solo work.

It appears that Raven was right. And now, with remote and knowledge work limiting the usefulness of other sources of power, informational influence is becoming an increasingly important power.

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Here is the six-element version of the framework:

  1. Legitimate power is inherent in a position, such as a supervisor’s job title. The title signals that the individual has the legitimate authority to be in charge. This “because I said so” power is often supported by the next two power sources: “because I can reward you” and “because I can punish you.”
  2. Reward Power stems from the ability to grant bonuses, raises, promotions, and privileges.
  3. Coercive power relies on the ability to punish via termination, demotion, undesirable scheduling, or unpleasant assignments. The effectiveness of coercive power may be limited by resistance to it. Reward and coercive power require surveillance and the continued use of the positional authority, rewards, and punishments to be effective. However, the other types of power are not constrained by surveillance or the need to exert power nonstop.
  4. Referent power is based on our identification with leaders and the intrinsic desire to follow their example.
  5. Expert Power stems from our belief that the leader has a deeper understanding of relevant topics and “knows best.”
  6. Informational Influence/power goes beyond the expert power by adding an element of learning. Not only does the leader know best, but the follower is developing an advanced understanding of why something is “best.” As a result, followers experience a change of mind and know the reason for action. Raven called this a “socially independent change” which might have been initiated by the leader but continues without the further leadership effort. People may not even remember who was the source of change.

Leadership without surveillance

Remote and flexible work challenges the traditional workplace authority model. Taking away opportunities for surveillance reduces the ability of formal authorities to dominate using rewards and punishments. Now, positional leaders who used to rely on rewards and punishments have limited options:

  • They can attempt to use surveillance where it is likely to harm productivity, such as the remote knowledge and creativity work
  • They can force people into the office, double-down on using reward (perks, bonuses) and punishment (paycuts, firings) power. But this risks losing employees and having to deal with a reduced replacement talent pool.
  • They can lead through referent, expert, and informational power, using purpose-centered inspiration while changing work organization to replace domination with the focus on wellbeing, outcomes, flexibility, and participation.

Yes, positional leaders still can and need to use the legitimate, reward, and even coercive power when appropriate. However, as work becomes increasingly cognitive or even emotional, the relative importance of the referent, expert, and informational leadership will continue to grow. The experience of those who had to lead in the workplace with little-to-no positional power, activists, and thought leaders offers valuable lessons for developing influence without using coercion or rewards.

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Developing referent, expert, and informational influence

Remember my example of leading the university faculty? There is an old complaint that managing university professors is like herding cats. Of course, the same is said about engineers, creatives, and other professionals whose very jobs require critical and independent thinking. The skillset needed to support a willing collaboration of “knowledge cats” is essentially the same across industries. It is also similar to the skillset required for leading the younger employees who seek purpose and meaning in their work but are unimpressed by positional authority. Combining the data-informed logic of informational and expert power with the authenticity and empathy of the referent power supports effective leadership without surveillance or domination.

Referent power is about leading by example. Aspiring leaders and those retooling to lead in the post-pandemic world can develop their referent power through modeling transparency and authenticity, as well as listening and compassion.

Activist leaders must practice what they preach. As a teenage environmental activist, I learned that inspiring others to care for the planet requires walking the walk. An effective environmental activist can’t be irresponsibly consuming resources. Similarly, if one expects colleagues to contribute high-quality work, setting an example of competence and commitment is non-negotiable.

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In addition to authenticity, listening to and understanding others underpins human connections. Relationships are much more intrinsically motivating than transactional rewards and punishments. Even before the pandemic, 78% of employees were willing to switch jobs to get more empathy. And 77% were willing to give more hours of work to an empathetic employer. Now, as the stress and burnout are taking a toll on employees, managers face an even taller order to exhibit compassion.

Once upon a time, expert power was achieved by hanging one’s college diploma on the office wall. The credential inflation and the emphasis on staying current require that many demonstrate expertise in additional ways. Credentials from independent organizations reflecting performance on objective tests, high-quality writing and speaking, and other indicators of expertise are increasingly important in addition to traditional diplomas.

Writing, speaking, and otherwise contributing to developing knowledge and thinking blurs the line between expert and informational power. If done well, this effort both establishes expertise and supports informational influence. Distributed workforce focused on learning and creativity increasingly requires that those in organizational leadership roles display characteristics of thought leadership —changing people’s minds and inspiring at a distance.

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To build on the referent, expert, and informational power, leadership must center on shared purpose. Both activism leadership and thought leadership unite diverse people from around the world because the cause or the idea intrinsically inspires them. Authentically uniting talent around a sense of purpose is increasingly the task of all leaders. Earning the respect of people and supporting them with care and dignity provide the relational foundation for the intrinsically inspired work. 

A fancy desk and a business suit are optional.


Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD, SHRM-SCP, uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, ability, and neurodiversity to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a professor and director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California.

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