Legitimate Power: Balancing Authority with Empathy in Leadership - Peter Boolkah

Legitimate power arises from the roles and duties granted to individuals by their position in an organisation or society. This type of authority is inherently acknowledged and embraced by others, giving leaders the ability to guide actions and make decisions. Whether it’s the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street or a manager assigning tasks to their team, both scenarios demonstrate how legitimate power functions.

For leaders, understanding the essence of this power is important as it allows them to wield their authority effectively, ensuring that their influence acts as a driver for positive change and harmony in the workplace.

Legitimate Power - Peter Boolkah

What is Legitimate Power?

In any well-functioning organisation, there’s a hierarchy of authority to bring order and streamline processes. Within these hierarchies, legitimate power emerges as a crucial element, rooted in the formal positions individuals hold. Legitimate power relates to a position or job title, which makes it a form of positional power.

This power allows them to influence and make important decisions, creating a structured framework for operations. This setup brings about a smoother workflow but also defines clear responsibilities, empowering those at lower levels to focus on their specific tasks with confidence.

The idea of legitimate power often mirrors a nurturing role found in family structures, where the authoritative figure oversees decision-making and the implementation of strategies that drive the organisation forward.

Factors of Legitimate Power

Understanding the factors that define and influence legitimate power in an organization is crucial for leaders aspiring to maximize their impact while fostering a culture of respect and cooperation.

Drive Accountability

Leaders with legitimate power must answer these questions positively, using their authority to maintain integrity within the organisation. Accountability is the key to organisational success, a principle that ensures all members act in line with established standards and values. When leaders establish the idea that actions have consequences, they create an environment where ethical behaviour and responsibility are crucial.

Provide Recognition

Leaders with legitimate authority have the special opportunity not just to ensure accountability but also to celebrate achievements and good behaviour within their teams. Acknowledgement boosts morale, nurtures a positive organisational culture, and promotes an environment where striving for excellence becomes the standard rather than the exception.

By recognising and rewarding their team members’ contributions, leaders send a powerful message that excellence is seen and valued. This gesture of confirmation inspires employees to persist in their efforts and reinforces the positive behaviours that drive organisational success.

Connect People to Opportunity

Have you ever been to a party with a friend where you didn’t know anyone else as you walked in, but somehow left with a room full of new friends by the end of the evening? Having someone who will take the time to introduce and support you can open up a whole new world of possibilities—much the same in an organisational setting.

Your role gives you the chance to introduce and champion members of your team to others they wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s a powerful aspect of leadership that turns mere management into genuine mentorship. This ability to connect people not only boosts your team members’ professional networks but also greatly contributes to their personal growth and career development.

How to Develop a Legitimate Power

By following these tips, anyone can excel in a position of power and pursue their future with integrity.

1. Connect With Your Team

Because of the negative associations that people often have with those in positions of authority, individuals with power must make a deliberate effort to connect with their colleagues. The key to using your legitimate power and authority within an organization and turning it into a positive influence lies in a leader’s ability to authentically bond with their team. Without sincerely trying to form connections with your coworkers, earning their likes and admiration will be challenging.

Being approachable and open-minded can help you become a better leader, nurturing trust and mutual respect. This connection extends beyond professional interactions; it involves demonstrating a genuine interest in their welfare, understanding their ambitions, and aiding them through difficulties. Such a leader not only garners respect but also fosters loyalty and a high level of engagement from the team.

2. Use Other Types of Power

To have a successful career, you’ll need to embrace multiple types of power. Managing power effectively involves communication, collaboration, and teamwork. Combining these traits will earn you respect and boost your efficiency. True leadership isn’t just about authority; it’s about melding different powers to build a united and dynamic team.

By stressing clear communication, promoting collaboration, and nurturing teamwork, you not only strengthen your authority but also cultivate an environment where innovation and success flourish.

3. Understand Your Position

Maintaining a position of legitimate power requires a deep understanding of your role and why you hold it. The best leaders connect with their colleagues, never assuming they know everything. To be a good leader, treat your power and your team with care and empathy. This principle underpins effective leadership.

It’s not just about guiding others; it’s about fully grasping the responsibilities of your position and using that insight to nurture a supportive and empowering atmosphere. A leader’s power should be used with a keen awareness of its impact, aiming to inspire and propel others towards greatness, rather than simply dictating actions or decisions.

Other Types of Power

Now that we understand the concept of legitimate power in leadership, let’s delve into the various forms of power within leadership, as highlighted by researchers French and Raven in 1960. Their influential study on the foundations of social power identified five specific types of power. Each of these powers significantly impacts how individuals are influenced and outcomes are achieved, molding the dynamics of leadership and management.

Expert Power

Expert power comes from mastery, knowledge, and experience accumulated in a specific field of expertise. A leader can harness expert power due to years of expertise in a specific field. Employees in an organisation can also wield expert power, with each person being valued for the technical know-how they bring to the job. The head chef in a restaurant, who creates the recipe for its most popular menu item, also possesses this type of power.

Coercive Power

Coercive power is derived from the ability to administer punishment for noncompliance. It is a type of power where the fear of punishment motivates and encourages cooperation. It is wielded as a weapon for control and dominance. For instance, a manager might threaten an employee with demotion, dismissal, or salary withholding if they don’t meet certain standards or objectives.

While coercive power can ensure immediate compliance, leaders should use it carefully. Relying too much on this power can damage trust and morale, creating a culture of fear instead of mutual respect and ambition. Effective leaders blend coercive and legitimate power to inspire, lead, and motivate their teams towards excellence.

Referent Power

This type of power is acquired through respect, admiration, and/or a highly successful track record of performance. Also known as charisma, it originates from the ability to serve as a good role model and draw the loyalty and dedication of others. Take Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, for instance, who displayed this power by endorsing the use of Signal—a messaging app—leading to a 438% surge in shares the next day.

Referent power illustrates the impact a leader can have not only within their organisation but also across the market and society at large. Leaders who adeptly utilise referent power can inspire their teams, foster a positive organisational culture, and instigate significant changes through seemingly straightforward actions.

Reward Power

This form of power comes from the ability to give a gift, reward, or incentive to acknowledge effort or compliance. The reward must be highly valued or not easily accessible to the person being influenced to be effective. For example, employees receiving recognition or a financial reward for exceptional performance. It’s perceived as a weak form of personal power as it can be used to manipulate others for personal gain. However, when used appropriately, it can also have a significant positive impact.

Leaders who adeptly use reward power create an environment where acknowledgment and gratitude are freely given, fostering a culture of high performance and mutual respect. This strategic application of reward power not only boosts individual motivation but also nurtures a shared commitment toward achieving organisational goals with enthusiasm and dedication.

workplace leadership

Pros of Legitimate Power

When you use legitimate power with wisdom and integrity, it acts as the linchpin in nurturing a culture of trust, respect, and high performance within any organisation. Here are the main advantages of legitimate power:

You can clearly see the companies hierarchy

When you’re in the top half of a workplace hierarchy, you can see it more clearly. Those at the lower end have less control, which often leads to exploitation. Those in positions of power are more likely to understand the system they’re part of. This deep comprehension isn’t just a perk but a vital tool enabling them to shape the organization’s culture and direction effectively.

It empowers leaders to make changes, seize opportunities, and guide their teams through workplace politics and power structures, ensuring everyone works towards the organization’s success.

Improves Workflow

Your position of influence can serve as a tool for managing challenging tasks with ease and efficiency. Others in different roles may lack the resources or social connections that you possess. This gives you a chance to drive swift, efficient progress.

By utilizing your unique position, you can mobilise resources, unite teams, and navigate through administrative hurdles to ensure smooth operations. This not only speeds up the achievement of organizational objectives but also fosters trust and dependability in your leadership.

Remains Widely Accepted

In many workplaces, it’s quite common for team members to show unwavering respect towards those in authority. This acceptance of deference is crucial for maintaining order and ensuring organisations run smoothly.

It also means that individuals in positions of power can generally rely on their instructions being obeyed. This aspect of legitimate power not only helps with task efficiency but also bolsters the authority and respect crucial for effective leadership.

Ability to Influence Others

One of the key aspects of leadership is the responsible use of power, and legitimate authority is no different. While it’s crucial to avoid using social influence for personal gain, leaders with legitimate power do have the privilege and, indeed, the opportunity to enjoy certain aspects of their position in a positive and constructive way.

This authority allows leaders to wield their influence responsibly—whether it’s by offering assistance to those in need, initiating vital changes within their work environment, or reaching professional milestones that benefit not only themselves but also greatly aid their team and organisation

Cons of Legitimate Power

There are also potential disadvantages of legitimate power that leaders need to be aware of to maintain a balanced and effective form of governance.

Abuse of Authority

Many people who hold legitimate power may not fully understand how or when to use it for good. Unfortunately, the abuse of power and authority poses a significant challenge for leaders entrusted with legitimate power. The appealing attraction of absolute control can sometimes overshadow the essential responsibilities that come with leadership roles. These responsibilities include nurturing growth, championing justice, and leading with integrity. It’s a test of character, an ongoing battle with one’s conscience.

Leaders aiming to cultivate a healthy relationship with their power must stay alert, consistently questioning their motives and the impact of their actions. It’s about striking the delicate balance between exerting influence and offering guidance, between making tough decisions and empowering others.

Doesn’t Prompt Loyalty and Respect

Not everyone who wields power uses it wisely. That’s why many folks feel a natural sense of resentment or distrust towards authority figures. The truth is, power, particularly legitimate power, carries significant responsibility. It demands a level of self-awareness and moral integrity that not all leaders possess.

Holding a position of power means your actions and choices are amplified and closely examined. Even with the best intentions and efforts to demonstrate integrity, these actions may occasionally be met with disdain or opposition, making collaboration challenging.

Sometimes Can lead to Ineffectiveness

There are many ways for legitimate power to be misused. One such way is when an inexperienced or under-qualified individual takes on the role. An under-skilled manager or boss is likely to make ineffective decisions, causing disruption and delay rather than progress. This not only hampers the achievement of organisational goals but also demoralises the team, leading to a pervasive lack of confidence in leadership.

It serves as a stark reminder that possessing legitimate power should be accompanied by a corresponding level of competence and wisdom. Leaders must ensure they are well-equipped—with knowledge, experience, and the necessary skills—to wield their power effectively and guide their teams towards success.

Can Cause Dissatisfaction and Frustration

Sometimes, it may be tough not to exercise legitimate power in moments of weakness. Unfortunately, those who work for or beneath you are unlikely to give you much leeway. It’s the role of authoritative figures to use their power wisely.

However, overuse or misuse can strain relationships with your direct reports, breeding resentment and undermining the foundation of trust and respect that’s vital for a productive working environment. Leaders must continually strive for self-awareness and exercise restraint, ensuring that their influence is always used to nurture growth, encouragement, and unity, rather than fear and division.

Examples of Legitimate Power in Leadership

Let’s take a closer look at some legitimate power examples:


A manager represents the perfect example of legitimate power. Leading a large team of employees, they oversee smooth operations, tackle issues, and implement solutions. Their key role in an organization captures the essence of legitimate power by leveraging authority, responsibility, and expertise to steer teams towards achieving shared objectives.


A coach embodies genuine authority through their distinctive position of influence, guiding individuals towards personal and professional development. Unlike conventional authoritarian roles, a coach harnesses power by unlocking potential, guiding learning, and facilitating growth rather than dictating terms.

This method fosters trust and respect among team members, resulting in a more united and motivated group. A coach’s genuine authority lies in their capacity to listen, offer constructive feedback, and encourage individuals to exceed their boundaries.


Although it’s not an official job title, parents embody a form of legitimate power at its core. They have authority simply by being a parent. This gives them as much power as is legally possible over their child, covering a wide range of decision-making abilities—from setting daily routines to guiding their child’s future through educational choices. The classic “Because I said so” response captures the essence of the unquestionable authority parents have.

Their role in a young child’s life gives them almost complete control over their child’s life, including the ability to give commands and influence their children’s social interactions, like imposing restrictions such as grounding. This level of influence and control highlights the significant impact of legitimate power within the family structure, similar in effect to what is seen in corporate and organisational environments.


Teaching may not be the first profession that springs to mind when thinking of power. However, in reality, teachers wield significant authority and influence in society. Imparting valuable knowledge to younger generations entails a great deal of responsibility and strength. Educators hold the key to unlocking potential, shaping minds, and moulding the leaders of tomorrow.

With this responsibility comes a distinct form of legitimate power, derived not only from their position but from the respect and admiration they earn through their dedication to the growth and development of their students. Teachers nurture an environment of learning and curiosity, harness their expertise to challenge and inspire, and in doing so, have a profound impact on the future direction of society.


What is legitimate power typically based on?

Legitimate power often stems from an individual’s role or position in a social or organizational hierarchy. It arises from acknowledged authority linked to a title, a position of responsibility, or a formal role that’s assigned or elected.

This type of power is supported by laws, rules, regulations, and accepted norms that give individuals the authority to make decisions, control resources, and anticipate compliance from others. Essentially, legitimate power is the formal entitlement to make requests and to expect others to comply and follow obediently due to one’s position within a framework.

Who can have legitimate power?

Legitimate power can be held by anyone who holds a position of authority within an organizational, familial, or social structure. This includes roles like managers, coaches, parents, and teachers, as well as leaders of communities, elected officials, and executives in corporations. People in these positions are trusted with guiding, directing, and influencing others by virtue of their designated roles.

It’s not just the title that grants this power, but the recognized and accepted authority that accompanies it, validated by the collective acknowledgment and respect of those they lead. In every sphere of society, legitimate power is a fundamental aspect of governance, leadership, and the nurturing and development of communities and organizations.

What is the difference between authority and legitimate power?

Authority and legitimate power, though often used interchangeably, each have distinct nuances that differentiate them. Authority refers to the right and power to command, adjudicate, or influence others, typically stemming from a recognised or legal source. It is the broader concept that encompasses the ability to take action, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Legitimate power, on the other hand, is a specific form of authority derived from an individual’s role or position within a structured organisation or societal framework.

It’s based on the perceived legitimacy of a person’s title and the responsibilities that come with it, leading to an accepted and recognised right to guide or influence others’ actions. Hence, while all legitimate power is a form of authority, not all authority stems from legitimate power. Authority can arise from various sources, including expertise (expert power) or personal characteristics (referent power), whereas legitimate power is strictly tied to one’s formal position and role.

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