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What are French and Raven's Sources of Leadership Power Theory?

This is a different sort of leadership philosophy. Unlike Servant, Authentic, Ethical 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 their freedom to lead.

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

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. These particular investigations were aimed at the 'sources of a leader's power' and the relationship between them and their 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:

  1. Positional - three power sources
  2. Personal - two power sources

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

French and Raven's Five Sources of Power
Positional Power

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

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

3. 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

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

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

Note crucially, that all five sources either rely on or are strengthened by, the 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 they do not truly have the power to reward, punish or control others, they can exert influence if their followers believe they do.

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 him 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.

This is based on the principles:

  1. Power does not depend only on the leader, it depends also on the perceptions that the followers have of the leader.
  2. The taking and giving of power stem from a relationship between leader and follower, and how the followers perceive the leader.

It is reasonable to suggest that decades ago most organisational 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 power. This is why the two variants of Personal Power - Expert Power and Referent Power - are now so important.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution to producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.