Sources of Leadership Power - French and Raven

Table of contents

Sources of Power [edit]

This is a different sort of leadership philosophy.

Unlike Servant LeadershipAuthentic LeadershipEthical Leadership and Values-Based Leadership, French and Raven's concept does not offer a view on the sort of leadership one should offer. Instead, it investigates the basis of a leader's power.

French and Raven's theory:

  • classifies the leader's main sources of power
  • analyses the followers' perceptions of a leader's position and qualities
  • shows how these perceptions affect the leader's power, and thereby the leader's freedom to lead.

It is said that you cannot be a leader if you don't have followers. Followers have to accept the leader's power or, instead, give power to the leader.

This thought led academics during the last century to want to understand why people will let themselves be led by certain leaders and not by others.

So particular investigation was aimed at the 'sources of a leader's power' and the relationship between leaders and followers.

Types of Power

Notably in their 1958/59 article, The Bases of Social Power, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five types of leadership power, which they grouped under two headings:

  • Positional Power - three power sources
  • Personal Power - two power sources

These five power sources in two groups are summarised in the table below:


French and Raven's Five Sources of Power  
Positional Power

Reward Power - Power based on the idea that the leader can and will grant valuable rewards if followers carry out his or her instructions.

Coercive Power - Power coming from the idea that the leader can and will penalise those who don't carry out his or her instructions.

Legitimate Power - Power flowing from a person's job title or position in the hierarchy; a position that gives them the right to issue orders.

Personal Power

Expert Power - Power that comes from having superior knowledge, expertise or experience relevant to the task or challenge facing the group.

Referent Power - Power stemming from the leader's character traits, background, image, executive presence or charisma.


Note crucially, that all five sources of power either rely on, or are strengthened by, belief of the followers.

The actual power that leaders possess in granting rewards, punishing, or issuing orders (Positional Power) is significant, but not as significant as the beliefs that followers have about them.

Even if leaders do not truly have the power to reward, punish or control others, they can exert influence if their followers believe they have such power.

The same is true of the two forms of Personal Power - Expert Power and Referent Power. The leader may not have superior expertise, but if his followers believe he has, they will grant the leader power over them - at least for a while.

Similarly, if the leader is not someone to be trusted, followers will let him lead if they've been fooled by a positive image - until they discover he cannot be trusted.

The point is that:

Power does not depend only on the leader; power depends also on the perceptions that the followers have of the leader.

The taking and giving of power stems from a relationship between leader and follower, and how the followers perceive the leader.

It is reasonable to suggest that decades ago most organizational leaders relied on Positional Power. However, there is more questioning of authority by followers in the 21st century and an impressive job title doesn't guarantee leadership power. This is why the two variants of Personal Power - Expert Power and Referent Power - are now so important.