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The powers that be (and how they are used)

Power: It’s a word that often brings to mind force, military might, or compelling people to do things they don’t want to do. But power has many attributes other than position and coercion. If you think about power in terms of teachers and students, it’s easy to remember those you obeyed because you feared what would happen if you didn’t, and those you didn’t mind, or even enjoyed, taking direction from. No matter who you’re leading—an organization, a team, or a group of volunteers—it’s important to recognize different types of power, as well as their consequences, and understand when to use each type.

In general, there are five styles of power that leaders use in their relationships with others:

1. Positional power

2. Coercive power

3. Reward power

4. Expert power

5. Personal power 


Positional power is the authority that comes from your place in an organization. For example, the CEO has positional power over everyone at the nonprofit by virtue of her role. This type of power depends mostly on facts: If someone doesn’t report to you, then you don’t have positional power over them. In that case, you have to use another type of power.

In the absence of (or in addition to) positional power, you can use coercive power to lead: applying force, the threat of force, or manipulation to get others to act on your agenda. The boss can coerce subordinates to take specific action by reminding them they could be fired if they don’t. On a team project, members can put pressure on an individual opposed to the general consensus by threatening to report them to higher-ups, or refusing to do their own parts.

Taking a staff member out to lunch for a job well done, giving them a bonus, or promising them a raise are examples of reward power. Of course, not everyone can dole out rewards, and doing so too frequently can lead people to expect a reward and become upset if they don’t get one.


Using coercion breeds resistance, while using positional power and reward power encourages mere compliance. If you want to inspire commitment and dedication, you need to develop and rely on your personal power and your expert power.

People with expert power are sought after because they are knowledgeable. They understand the way things work and how to get things done. People seek them out because they possess experience, qualifications, and the will to make themselves useful to others.

In general, there are two kinds of people with expert power. There are those who have a set of skills or understanding in a specific area like finance, law, or marketing. Then there are those who may not have formal knowledge, but rather the intelligence and experience to navigate issues, processes, or communities. Both kinds of people are vital for nonprofit success, and it’s important that everyone in an organization learn how to identify and use their expert power.

People with personal power are those you just want to work for, often because they’re smart, exciting, or truly appreciate their staff. A leader with personal power knows how to align the desires of others with her own, motivating people to want what she wants. Personal power can embolden people to do things they’ve never done, and see that they can be successful in almost any endeavor.

Some people are born with personal power, but it can also be developed through genuine efforts to develop healthy, enabling relationships with others. That means being interested in people beyond their organizational position and what they can do for you in the workplace, and treating them the way you want to be treated: with dignity and respect. People with personal power try to help coworkers and subordinates be all they can be. They start by giving others information, meaningful work, and opportunities to take corrective action, while avoiding being negative or getting outwardly upset.

Once you develop personal power, making people feel valuable and acknowledged, they will open up to you, trust you, and go the extra mile for you.


Naturally, people tend to practice the kinds of power that were practiced on them during their formative years. While positional power, coercive power, and reward power have their places, overreliance on them can lead not only to an unhappy workplace, but one that’s less successful in meeting goals. Fortunately, anyone can learn to use more of their expert and personal power with practice, patience, and the desire to succeed. 

Sir José Bright is vice president of GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group. 

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