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They Might Follow You Into Battle, But Is That Enough?

22/03/2012 16:42


Watching the D-Day landing of Allied forces on the coast of Normandy as portrayed in the epic Saving Private Ryan with my son recently, I was once again struck by the mind-boggling obedience of soldiers as they stormed onto the beach while literally being blown apart by enemy fire. How do leaders gain that level of power over men to order them to near certain death and still have them obey?

Of course it is a well-established fact that most soldiers do not fight and risk their lives in battle for political ideals or even for their country, but for their comrades in arms. In the heat of the battle their concern for one another, more than anything else, becomes the force that drives them to pay the highest price if neccessary.1 However, in most battle situations there is still a strong element of obedience to authority. Over centuries a significant part of infantry training has focused on ‘programming’ soldiers not to think for themselves or react on their survival instincts, but to blindly obey orders if these orders are perceived to be legitimate. So one question that comes to mind is what is the source of power that military leaders use to wield such an incredible level of command over their followers?

While both Jim Collins and John Maxwell has provided some valuable insight into the power and influence dynamics of leadership, to my mind the most significant contribution to the topic was made by leadership and organizational expert Richard Daft. Like Collins and Maxwell he identified five sources or bases of power, but made a clear distinction between sources of positional power and sources of personal power. Daft’s first three sources are all types of positional power which is derived from the leader’s position or rank in the organization:2

SOURCE 1: Legitimate Power is the authority a person has as because of the formal position he or she holds in the organization. Leaders at this basic level of leadership often rely on titles (or rank, in the military environment) to assert influence over their followers. Followers mostly comply because they accept the source of power as legitimate. Leaders who do not develop their personal sources of power (see SOURCE 4 and 5) often get stuck at this level. The result is that their ability to influence people is restricted by the level of authority derived from their position or title. Such leaders can never become "great leaders" and their long-term impact will always be limited.

SOURCE 2: Reward Power is related to the authority a leader has to reward followers. In practice leaders are in control of an organization’s resources and how these are distributed. As such, they can use their reward-power to influence the behavior of followers. Followers then comply in order to receive the rewards.

SOURCE 3: Coercive Power is in a sense the negative side of legitimate power and the opposite of reward power. It is the power a leader has to punish followers or to recommend punishment. A leader with coercive power has the legitimate right to demote or lay people off, to criticize, and to reduce or withdraw rewards.

The last two sources of power according to Daft’s model are both “personal” – power inherent to the individual leader himself and not derived from the position or rank that he holds:3

SOURCE 4: Expert Power refer to the skills and/or abilities that followers value and need.4 It can be expert or technical knowledge or abilities relating to the task itself, but it can also be the ability to construct a team by uniting other individuals who has such knowledge or abilities. In other words, the leader doesn’t have to have all the skills and abilities, but he or she knows where to find them.

SOURCE 5: Referent Power comes from the leader’s personal characteristics or personality through which he or she commands the follower’s loyalty and commitment. This power is derived from the identification of the follower with the leader, and on how much the follower trusts, likes, admires, respects and wants to be like the leader.5 In a very real sense then, referent power is power which the leader receives as a result of his or her positive personal influence on followers.

Most effective leaders will at different times, as demanded by different situations, make use of all these sources of power. However, a leader who only uses positional sources of power is highly unlikely to make any impact beyond that which his or her position or rank dictates. While soldiers may blindly obey them in battle, the leader’s influence will never develop any further if the leader doesn’t build up his or her personal power sources. Research has proven beyond any doubt that in today’s changed global environment and authoritarian approach, tight control and rigidity suppresses employee commitment, morale, innovation andmotivation, which in turn produces weak outcomes for the organization.

On the other hand, leaders who develop and use their personal sources of power are able to influence people far beyond that which is prescribed or expected by the leader’s formal authority as derived from their position or title. Since change has become a constant in our globalized world this ability is particularly valuable. The new challenge for leaders is therefore to develop skills that would enable them to influence followers in a constructive manner. Such leaders are able to motivate, increase employee’ commitment to the organization and thus encourage them to make their knowledge, creativity and skills (which have now become the crucial dynamic for production) readily available to the organization. More than ever before, this is a time when we need legitimate, values-based visionary leaders with strong Emotional Intelligence and people skills who are able to develop, motivate, equip and mobilize their followers to produce the best possible results.


1. Bryant, C. D. (2003). Handbook of death & dying, Volume 1. Sage: California.

2. Daft, R. L. (2005). The leadership experience. (3rd Ed.) Mason, OH: Thomson, p. 479.

3. Daft, R. L. (2005). The leadership experience. (3rd Ed.) Mason, OH: Thomson, p. 481.

4. Braynion, P. (2004). Power and leadership. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 18 (6), 447-463.

5. Daft, R. L. (2005). The leadership experience. (3rd Ed.) Mason, OH: Thomson. Braynion, P. (2004). Power and leadership. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 18 (6), 447-463.

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