What Is Referent Power & Why Do You Need It?
Referent power is a type of personal power that’s based on interpersonal relationships. As modern organizations focus more on collaboration and building relationships. As a result, it’s a powerful leadership tool. The less organizations focus on pure command ability, the more important referent power becomes.
This type of power is most often seen in leaders who lead through the strength of their personality. They’re likeable, they’re competent, and they make other people feel comfortable. People want to work on their teams, and are excited when they come on board a new project.
Expert power leaders bring their expertise. Legitimate power leaders bring their official status. A leader with referent power brings their team building ability and smooth personal style.
Here’s What We’ll Cover:
What Makes Someone Powerful?
There’s no one way of building referent power. Instead, it’s best to think of it arising from four bases of power. You can be stronger in some areas than others. You may even be weak in one area. But your average “score” across all four sources of powers needs to be very strong.
First, you need a track record of success. An effective leader is successful more often than not. This doesn’t mean you can’t struggle, or even fail at times. But the overall trend should be one of getting things done.
Second, you lead by example. If you expect your team members to be on time, you’re five minutes early. If you ask people to come in on Saturday for crunch time, you’re also working Sunday. You also hold yourself to a high ethical standard.
Third, people trust you to be fair. When there’s a conflict on your team, you listen and empathize with both sides. This also means holding people responsible for substandard work. But expectations should be fair and consistent from one employee to the next.
Fourth, you have strong interpersonal skills. This can be hard to pin down, since interpersonal skills take many forms. But charismatic leaders tend to be genuine, and often have a sense of humor. For one reason or another, people like you, and they want to make you happy.
Charisma is a difficult skill to build. Leading by example is a matter of personal ethics, and fairness comes from a well-tuned moral compass. A track record of success is the natural result of good leadership.
But charisma is an innate trait as much as a learned skill. Even so, there are some basics that anyone can master. Listen as much as you talk, treat all people with respect, and put your team members’ needs ahead of your own. Even if you lack a sense of comic timing, you’ll still inspire people to work hard.
Remember, strong referent power comes from a combination of all these things. If anything, raw charisma is the least important ingredient.
Examples of Referent Power
History is full of examples of referent power. One of the most famous is Julius Caesar. In 48 BC, he faced off against his rival Pompey at a place called Pharsalus.
Caesar’s army was bottled up on a tiny peninsula, starving and outnumbered two to one. They had just been beaten in another battle, and were on the verge of total collapse.
By that time, some of his troops had been with him for over 10 years. They had fought across Gaul together and participated in over a dozen battles. They had seen Caesar put himself in danger, fighting on the front line with his troops.
Before the Battle of Pharsalus, Caesar ordered his men to tear down the walls they had built and destroy their own camp. He told them that they would either die in battle, or spend the night in the enemy’s camp. Because they believed in their leader, Caesar’s legionaries did as they were ordered.
That day, they didn’t just win the battle; they won the entire war. Pompey’s entire army fled the field and deserted him. And just like that, Caesar beat his biggest rival in the Roman Civil War.
Referent power is different from old-school coercive power because it's a type of social power. It relies on interpersonal connections and teambuilding skills. Referent power leaders motivate and inspire their team members.
To wield referent power, a leader must exercise fair judgement, and must lead by example. They need to build a track record of success because their team members want them to succeed.
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