The Power–Influence Perspective - Principles of Management

Leaders, by definition, have legitimate power that comes from their hierarchical position, as well as power over the distribution of rewards and sanctions and over the allocation of scarce resources. However, research on the use of different forms of power suggests that effective leaders rely as much on the personal power that flows from expertise, a network of allies, and individual attributes as they do on power flowing from their formal position.

The power that flows from hierarchical position is a blunt instrument that does not necessarily build commitment from employees to a vision. As CEO of Continental Airlines Gordon Bethune enjoyed significant hierarchical power, which allowed him to manipulate the reward structure at Continental to improve customer service.

However, his effectiveness as a leader also came from his power as an expert in the industry (Bethune had a long career in aerospace) and individual attributes such as his eloquence, energy, focus, and integrity, all of which earned him the respect of employees and helped him influence their behavior.

For another illustration of the nuanced position that leaders must adopt with regard to the accumulation and application of power, consider William Bratton, who gained significant credit for reducing the crime rate in New York first as leader of the New York Transit Police and then as commissioner of the New York Police Department. Bratton advocated zero-tolerance policing. This included prosecution for “quality of life” crimes such as panhandling and vandalism.

His push was opposed by the city’s courts, which feared the policy would swamp the court system with small crime cases. To get past the opposition of the courts, Bratton elicited the help of a powerful ally, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani explained that although zero-tolerance policing would initially increase the workload of the courts, over time this would decline as the crime rate fell in New York.

The courts were not convinced. They appealed to the city council, advocating legislation to exempt them from handling minor crime cases. Bratton and Giuliani responded by holding a series of press conferences and placing their case before The New York Times, the city’s most influential newspaper, arguing that if the courts did not help crack down on quality of life crimes, the city’s crime rate would not improve.

Bratton’s alliance with the mayor and then The New York Times isolated the courts, which dropped their opposition. As it turned out, the application of zero-tolerance policing did initially result in a spike in court cases. However, eventually the crime rate and the number of court cases tumbled.

The story of William Bratton illustrates how a network of allies can be a significant source of power enabling a leader to push through a policy or program against substantial opposition from an important constituency, in this case the New York City court system. What we learn from the experiences of Gordon Bethune and William Bratton is that to get things done in organizations, effective leaders rely on more than their legitimate hierarchical power.

They play the power game with skill, combining their hierarchical power, their expertise, a network of allies, and personal power to achieve their goals. Effective leaders are skilled organizational politicians. They know how to use power to win over important constituencies to their cause and to remove or neutralize obstacles to their strategies.


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