What Types Of Power?

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th United States President, 1861–1865.

There is a universal need to exercise some kind of power, or to create for one’s self the appearance of some power, if only temporarily, in the form of intoxication…Not necessity, not desire — no, the love of power is the demon of men.
Friedrich Nietzsche, 15 October 1844–25 August 1900, German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet.

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.
Tao Te Ching, Chinese classic text credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi.

Power can be a strong aphrodisiac and intoxicant. It reveals the character of those who hold it. How they acquire it, how they exercise it, illuminates their character as few things can.

It has led to remarkable progress and tragic downfalls of individuals, societies and cultures through the ages. Power abused has resulted in the subjugation of whole peoples. The establishment of vicious dictatorships.

Power exercised with wisdom has led to golden ages in societies enabling periods of great creativity and accomplishments. It is fascinating to see how the differing motivations, appetites and exercises of power have crested and declined over the course of history.

What Is Power

What is power? How is it used? Why are people motivated to acquire and accumulate it? Important questions to consider in trying to develop a full understanding of how the world works. How power affects and influences us.

This essay seeks to elucidate a better understanding of power, its types and character underlying it. By necessity it will only touch the surface. So much can be said about it, and so many examples of it are evident throughout history.

Power is in the realms of psychology and sociology. Wisdom is in the realm of philosophy. “Philosophy” literally means ‘the love of wisdom’. In some ways they are quite related but they do not always go hand in hand with one another.

When the two intersect history has shown great benefits can be achieved. When they diverge often chaos and turmoil.

Power and wisdom are different aspects of human nature that have developed over many centuries. Wisdom without power is harmless. Power without wisdom can be dangerous and destructive.

Power intrinsically is neutral, neither good nor bad. Once possessed it can be used to significantly advance the common good through the supportive actions of others. It reflects one’s will to the outside world through influencing other people.

Personal power can attract many people towards another human being, inspiring them to seek their company and advice. People with personal power often change the course of other people’s lives. Depending upon the motives, it may be for the better or lead them down a dark or sinister path.

Types Of Power

However, not all power exercised is through personal power. Social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven in a classic study published by the University of Michigan Press in 1959 identified several primary sources of power.

They identified five major categories of these power sources. How power works or fails to work in its ability when engaging in these specific types of relationships.

There were some other minor categories and other sources which have been adduced by others. However, their primary five have been the most referenced by psychologists and sociologists since that study. They are briefly discussed here in no hierarchy of importance.

Legitimate or positional power is the power an individual holds due to their position and responsibilities with an organization. It is usually accompanied by various power attributes such as title, imposing physical office and so-called perks.

When I go into my bank branch the trappings of legitimate and positional power are easily seen and identified. Everyone there has some degree of power but where they are positioned within the bank reflects the degree of their power.

The branch manager is in a larger office than anyone else. The loan officers and assistant branch managers have slightly smaller offices. Administrative assistants are either within cubicles are out front at desks visible to incoming customers. And of course, the tellers are behind their teller windows.

Referent power is the ability of an individual to attract others and build loyalty with them. In essence personal power, based upon the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder.

Charismatic power is an aura possessed by very few individuals. It is characterized by extreme confidence, relative physical attractiveness, social adroitness, amiability, natural leadership skills and heightened charm.

Sometimes charisma blinds individuals to rationality and causes individuals to accede to requests of dubious natures. However, all individuals technically have the power to resist the demands of others.

At times they may feel powerless because resisting will exact a price they feel is too high in social, political, psychological or emotional terms. Also, the fear of failure.

Persons under referent power desire to identify with the power holder and be accepted by them as a loyal follower. This power can dissolve if the holder eventually displays abhorrent qualities such as dishonesty, financial impropriety or obvious manipulation.

One of the most visible exercises of referent or personal power is in the political arena. Obviously, those elected to public office have this power to some degree in order to mobilize enough citizens to vote them into office.

However, other people in the political arena not elected can develop this type of power as well.

The author, Robert Caro in his book, The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, tells the story of the man who was responsible for building the infrastructure of modern New York City. Most of which exists to the present.

Nearly the entire freeway and park systems were built at his instigation over a 44-year period from the 1920s into the 1960s. During that entire period, he never held an elective office, giving himself many titles with approval of Governors and Mayors who came and went.

He had referent power and his many creative titles, over a dozen, were his way of legitimizing his power with politicians and the public.

New York city planner Robert Moses with a model of lower Manhattan. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

What exactly did he build in New York City? The seven bridges linking the five boroughs together, 627 miles of freeways and parkways, added 20,000 acres of parkland with 658 playgrounds, such iconic places as Lincoln Center, United Nations Headquarters and Shea Stadium. In addition, he added 40,000 parkland acres on Long Island including the public beaches there.

Expert power is derived from the skills, expertise and knowledge of a person, and an organization’s needs for what the person has. This power is usually limited to the specific areas of the particular strengths of a person.

Doctors are an example of expert power in action. When we go to see them we are counting on their skills, expertise and knowledge to be able to give us a thorough exam or accurately diagnose any physical affliction we might have. Surgeons are particularly relied upon for their skill and expertise invasively exploring and repairing our bodies.

Reward power is dependent on the abilities of an individual to confer material rewards on others. Rewards can include such things as benefits, time off, promotions or increases in pay or responsibilities. This type of power can be quite tenuous for it usually only exists as long as the person can keep providing desired rewards.

Usually people exercising reward power are holding positions of legitimate power from which they are able to dispense rewards. Middle managers in organizations are an example of these types of power.

By virtue of their positions they are able to access and dispense rewards to those whom are under their supervision. They are dependent on their superiors and changes may occur affecting their reward power, even their legitimate power.

Coercive power is the use and application of negative consequences. Threats and punishment are common tools of coercion. It implies some type of domination or exploitation. It lasts only as long as the power holder can continue exerting these types of consequences.

When we think of coercive power we think of dictatorial and strongman type leaders. Coercion takes many different forms from denying certain privileges others receive, to being jailed and even murdered. We think of such current leaders as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

Motives And Character

The measure of a man is what he does with power.
Plato, 428–348 BC, Greek Philosopher

Why do people seek power and want to be in power positions? One of the central motives throughout history has been to gain prestige, honor and reputation. These seem to be needs intrinsic in human nature for most people.

One major downside as revealed in recent experimental psychology suggests that the more power one has, the less one is able to identify with others, implying less empathy. The powerful may become attuned to other powerful people but ignore their impact on the less powerful.

This certainly was true in the case of Robert Moses in his obsession with building the infrastructure of modern New York City. In acquiring the land and right of ways he needed for freeways and parks he had many low-income tenements taken over and bulldozed.

Some often on very short notice with no regard for those hundreds of thousands he was displacing. While controlling the NYC Housing Authority he built 1,082 new apartment houses containing 148,000 apartments eventually housing 555,000 people. However, in the process he evicted and displaced over 500,000 lower income citizens.

Many had no idea of where they could go. Often there were protests from the tenants but he hid from them and did not really consider it his concern.

During his 44 years in power he also used it in ways to shape the city’s social policies to his philosophical beliefs. So immense was his power that he was able to direct city resources to the benefit of its middle, upper-middle and upper classes to the detriment of its lower middle class and its poor.

He did all of this despite other wishes of multiple Mayors, other elected officials and even Governors. He accomplished it by using referent power, legitimizing it and coercive power through threats and sometimes bribery.

Ultimately the exercise of power reveals the character of those who have accumulated it by how they exercise it. Once they have power, the holders of it can affect the lives of many other people by how they choose to exercise it. This is clearly visible everyday in our own country and around the world.

It has been visible for the world to see in the case of Venezuela. Despite having some of the richest oil reserves in the world, populist dictatorships under Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro have used their power for their own selfish aggrandizement to the detriment of their constituents.

As a result, many citizens are in extreme poverty without adequate food or medical supplies. Many have fled the country in despair. What character have these leaders shown?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Contrast that with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. A vegetarian and teetotaler Modi has a frugal lifestyle and is a workaholic.

He has been effective in important areas of economic development and government reform. His approval ratings by the Indian people have consistently been between 75 and 90 per cent.

Prime Minister Modi receives high ratings, respect and is admired by people around the world. He has received many awards within India and internationally. A very strong inner character is reflected in his actions. This character is recognized widely by others. He appears to have mastered himself which as the sage Laozi said so many centuries ago is “true power”.


Nietzsche said humans have a universal need to exercise some kind of power, or to create for oneself the appearance of some power… It does seem to be an integral part of the human condition and an essential component of our human nature.

The dimensions of a person’s need or desire, and the strength of motivation in seeking its attainment is the story of power throughout the centuries.

For many it is the power to have a contented life meeting basic needs, and perhaps a few luxuries on occasion. Others desire great wealth and to live extravagantly.

A rare few have the inner need and desire to leave their indelible mark on history, and to gain influence and control over many other people.

How they do this and what mark they leave on history depends upon whether or not they are doing it from a place of wisdom or from raw, naked desires for more and more. Whether they become revered and admired for shared accomplishment or whether they are feared and loathed for their selfish insolence.

Examples of many types of power and its exercise fill the pages of history. 

Demagogues, charlatans, dictators, just rulers, beloved leaders and many other types. In understanding each, and their differences, it is ultimately necessary to learn the forces that shaped them and their characters over time.

Power is always here. There are always people seeking to grasp it and exercise it to meet their own inner needs.

Some of these people seek it to use for the benefit and improvement of their fellow citizens, and mankind. Identifying them as they are before becoming complicit in their exercise of power is the challenge we all face.


Writer, Poet, Essayist, Meditator, Compassionate Being. Previously 35-year career and CEO and COO of privately held companies and trade associations. Has served on a number of boards of nonprofit groups and business organizations. Visit Randy at TranquilFreedom.com.
Writer, Poet, Essayist, Meditator, Compassionate Being. Previously 35-year career and CEO and COO of privately held companies and trade associations. Has served on a number of boards of nonprofit groups and business organizations. Visit Randy at TranquilFreedom.com.

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