Social power refers to the capacity of one individual or group to move another individual or group a given distance in a given direction against resistance. Specific forms of social power that accompany leadership roles include reward power, punishment power, expert power, legitimate power, and personal power. All of them are normally recognized by social scientists are summarized in the rest of this article.


  • Reward power. This form of social power accrues to anyone who can offer something of value to other people in return for compliance. In a leader-follower relation, the leader may offer followers a reward such as a salary, a choice of tasks to perform, or social recognition in return for a commitment to work for achievement of group goals. People will often work beyond minimum expectations to achieve rewards they care about, and the leader-follower relationship is usually enhanced by the exchange of rewards.

One pitfall of reward power is that rewards may come to be routinely expected if they are routinely offered and thus lose their power. Another pitfall is that followers’ attention might be seduced from the intrinsic goals of the group to the extrinsic rewards offered, which can easily lead to cheating. For example, the goal of a college course is to enhance understanding, but the presence of rewards for goal achievement can lead students to do whatever they need to do to get a good grade whether they understand anything new or not.

  • Punishment power: Punishment or “coercive” power is in some respects the opposite of reward power. It accrues to anyone who can threaten others with undesirable consequences for a failure to comply with expectations. In a leader-follower relation, a leader may threaten to fire, excommunicate, humiliate, or otherwise penalize followers for failure to meet expectations. Punishment power or coercion may be necessary in contexts where violence or coercion are built into the situation, such as military conflicts or police actions where followers may wish to avoid danger and unpleasantness.

The problem with punishment or coercive power is that it only motivates avoidance behavior; it cannot generate creativity or extraordinary productivity. People respond to threats by avoiding those who make them; thus punishment power undermines a positive relationship between leaders and followers. Where punishment power and reward power can be yoked together, however, incentives to fulfill expectations can be quite high. People will take tangible risks if they think the rewards are worthy, even if the threat of failure is significant; where the difference between reward and punishment turns out to be the amount of effort invested, people will invest significant effort.

  • Expert power: This form of social power accrues to anyone who knows relevant and important stuff that others in the group don’t know. Leaders are often chosen because they know a lot about the tasks and goals of the organization. In today’s complex organizations and communities, however, anyone who knows how to do something critical can wield expert power. The most savvy computer geek in a small business, for example, can hold everyone else hostage. One implication of expert power in today’s world is that leaders of complex organizations and communities must rely on the expertise of lots of people who know lots of stuff the leader does not know.

Consider a college president or a hospital administrator who must rely on lots of other people to do things the president or the administrator knows little about. One of the mediating factors in the modern world is the role of accrediting institutions, which are supposed to certify the expertise of experts. College presidents rely on other institutions to certify the degrees that their faculty members hold and hospital administrators rely on medical schools to certify the credentials of the doctors they hire. Leaders may have the advantage of being able to seek consultation from experts and thus avoid the need to become an expert on everything themselves. Finally, the significance of expert power nowadays must always be supported by trust in the personal integrity and commitment to appropriate goals in all concerned. Expertise in itself does not guarantee excellence without appropriate personal values or devotion to the welfare of the group.

  • Legitimate power: This form of social power inheres in the position or the formal role played by those who hold it. It is usually written down in some sort of guiding document or constitution. The legitimate power of the President of the United States, for example, is summarized in the U.S. Constitution. The legitimate power of any corporate CEO is summarized in the charter of the corporation. Legitimate power may also inhere in unwritten customs and traditions, but the point is that they are in the position and not in the person. All U.S. Presidents have the same constitutional or legitimate power, though individual presidents interpret and wield their power much differently.

A common problem associated with legitimate power is that people generalize the power of the position to the effectiveness of the person in the position. Thus anyone who gets elected President of the U.S. tends to be rated highly in all sorts of ways because he (so far it’s always been a “he”) is the President of the U.S. People want to believe that their leaders are effective, expert, and worthy in all sorts of ways regardless of their real skills and talents. Research indicates that people with position power tend to be highly regarded by others, especially their followers, whether they deserve to be or not. The preoccupation with legitimate power easily leads people who hold it to tell others that they should follow simply because “I say so” or because “I’m the president and I know better than you.”

  • Personal (referent) power: This form of social power is inherent in the personality of the leader or the person who wields it. In the simplest terms it is attractiveness or likeability; in fancier terms it might be called “charisma.” People who radiate charm and personal attractiveness have this kind of power. In some ways it is the most primitive and most mysterious of all, because it seems to be inborn. To a great extent, however, it is learned and it can be cultivated.

Recent research on emotional intelligence reveals a great deal about this form of power. It has a lot to do with the expression of confidence and optimism, with good will and good humor, and with resonance and harmony within the group as opposed to dissonance and discord. The problem with personal power is that it tends to lead us away from critical thinking and rational decision making, since it depends on non-rational emotional connections between leaders and followers.

Clearly, leaders who can summon several forms of social power are quite likely to succeed in their leadership roles. Furthermore, legitimate power invested in a formal leadership role tends to guarantee certain forms of reward and punishment power. The combination of those three forms of power also tend to enhance a leader’s perceived personal power and access to experts.