All Articles Leadership Inspiration Do you want power or influence?

Do you want power or influence?

5 min read


Adapted from Organizational Behavior, Schermerhorn, Hunt, & Osborn, John Wiley & Sons, 2000, pgs. 311-15

Power or Influence? This is an important question as we navigate through our careers. The two are often confused for one another so our first step is to define them. Here are my definitions:

  • Power: The ability to get others to do something you want done, and perhaps even to complete the task the way you want it done.
  • Influence: A behavioral response to the exercise of power; you demonstrate your influence when others comply with your requests.

If you are the CEO of a company, the governance structure of that organization gives you a substantial amount of power. Unless it is a smaller organization with no board of advisors or directors, that power has its limits, and that is a checks-and-balances system that protects the interests of the various groups of owners or investors.

But there is a lot of “juice” in the comments or directives of the CEO or [resident of most firms. Let’s consider what that power is all about.

For the most part, much of the power comes from being appointed, elected or buying (when you purchase a company) to the position at the top. You have the power then to use:

  • Reward power: The use of power to control others.
    • Extrinsic rewards: Money, promotions, enriched jobs.
    • Intrinsic rewards: Compliments, access, visibility, exposure.
  • Coercive power: The ability to deny desired rewards or administer punishment to control others.
    • Withhold increases, or transfer, demote or fire those who are “out of line.”
  • Legitimate power: The organizational authority to control various things that come from the position — e.g. CEO signs off on all corporate strategy, chief legal osigns off on all contracts, CFO must approve all expenditures over a certain dollar limit.

The problem with positional power is that there actually are few of the really significant roles at the top of any organizational structure. It’s clogged up there. But that does not mean we are out of luck in terms of power if we have not had the fortune or good luck to step into these positions of power and the influence that goes with it.

There are also sources of power that are personal and can provide both power and influence if we cultivate and use them well:

  • Expert power: The ability to control one’s behavior because of the knowledge, experience or judgment that one needs.
    • Recognized as the expert on specific subjects or systems; this is relative, not absolute and is time-sensitive. Expertise must be current.
  • Rational persuasion: The ability to control others behavior because they accept the desirability of an offered goal and a reasonable way of achieving it that you persuasively convey.
    • Explaining the desirability of various outcomes and how specific actions will achieve them.
  • Referent power: The ability to control one’s behavior because of the desire of the other to identify with the power source.
    • Charisma, or “The Vision Thing.” Very charismatic people can influence others based on the connection they establish with others. There is often a significant expertise involved but almost always these folks are very persuasive in communicating their perspectives.

No matter where you are in the arc of your career, most of us would like to be more influential.

In a world where everything seems to be getting flatter, especially the structures of many organizations, there are fewer positions of power to go around. And it will continue to be a very tough competition for those roles. So I would say your best bet would be to focus on your personal sources of power to gain greater influence.

“The greatest ability in business is to get along with others and to influence their actions.” – John Hancock

The most important way to gain influence is to do it while you are building the network of connections that is so key in this very interconnected world. Professional groups, LinkedIn groups, and other communities require you to invest some time here. Make it happen.

In addition, here are some key ways to exploit these opportunities for influence:

  • Expertise: Stay up to date on your areas of knowledge. Invest in going to conferences, consider certification programs and any learning opportunities. Invest your time and money wisely by seeking out perspectives on the relative merit of various options.
  • Rational persuasion: You can always learn to communicate more powerfully. Solicit assistance in developing presentations and in getting feedback on how you performed. Consider Toastmasters or join a Mastermind group. Reach out and ask for help. And speak up!
  • Charisma: Sorry to say, but less than 10% of the population really has this unusual ability. I know people who have met former President Bill Clinton and, despite their disagreements with his politics, cannot help but being charmed by him. Just be glad you don’t have Amsirahc — that is “charisma” spelled backward — and repel rather than attract people. Can’t help you there.

Ask yourself:

  • What can I do to expand my connections so that my expertise can grow and become better known and appreciated?
  • How can I improve my persuasion skills and get the feedback to know I am?

Willy Steiner is the president of Executive Coaching Concepts, dedicated to assisting senior executives in taking their individual and organizational performance “To The Next Level.” He has provided valuable counsel to senior executives throughout his career with General Electric, RCA Corp. and with Galileo International and, for the last 17 years as an executive leadership coach for clients in a variety of industries in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. He was recently certified in the Marshall Goldsmith Team Stakeholder Centered Coaching Process.