Power and Leadership

  • Morten FogsgaardEmail author
  • Claus Elmholdt
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1324-1


Power Technology Structural Power Corporal Punishment Power Resource Personal Power 
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Power is one of the most heretical concepts in modern organizations. Not only is power often taboo, an explosive issue that managers and employees avoid talking about, it is also in itself a difficult phenomenon to approach, because the allocation of power is not always transparent.

The aim of this contribution is to emphasize the dynamics of power and leadership relations in organizations. Power is traditionally defined as forms of influence based on the execution of control and sanctions (Hatch 2011; Fogsgaard and Elmholdt 2014). However, in relation to leadership, this definition is insufficient, because the emphasis on explicit forms of power does not fully embrace the concept of power in organizations. This contribution advocates that a more comprehensive conception of power contains three aspects: structural power, personal power, and discursive power. Power is thus considered as an analytical concept in the sense that it is perceived as neither negative nor positive. Rather, the affective value of power reveals itself in the way it is used and executed.

Definitions and Theoretical Review


Much research on power has been made in the contexts of the political science, where the concept is described from very different and opposing perspectives. In particular, the following five dimensions have been represented:
  1. 1.

    Direct and visible power, as formulated by Robert A. Dahl, where “A gets B to do what B would not otherwise have done” (Dahl 1957). Focus is on the obvious and visible power, where one of the partners imposes their preferences on the other party by virtue of their power resources. Power is thus limited to the activities that take place when interests clash during decision-making. Dahl calls for power analysis to identify A and B as individuals or groups between which there is a visible conflict. The existence of the conflict makes it possible to investigate the extent to which A succeeds in resolving the conflict to his own benefit. This approach consists of identifying and taking a point of departure in an issue or topic (e.g., employment conditions) about which two or more individuals, parties, or groups have directly expressed their opinion. Power analysis then seeks to clarify which of the players control the outcome of the decision-making process and “win” the conflict.

  2. 2.

    Indirect power, as formulated by Bachrach and Baratz. Here the decisive power dimension is related to that of learning how to control decisions. By limiting decisions to relatively safe and uncontroversial matters, the organization’s rulers can secretly exercise far more power than would be possible through the official decision-making process (Bachrach and Baratz 1962). Bachrach and Baratz argue that an organization’s main conflicts will often be hidden. Hence, these hidden conflicts can be made the object of an empirical analysis of power.

  3. 3.

    Consciousness-controlling power, as described by Steven Lukes, is directed toward the content of our immediately felt interest. By controlling the consciousness of others, the power holder can ensure that the felt interests of others are more in line with the interests of the power holder than with their own objective interests. The power holder can do this via a hidden ideological control of the prevailing needs, wants, values, and preferences, as they are articulated in the workplace (Lukes 2005).

  4. 4.

    Structuralized power concerns how structural factors affect the distribution of power. It is especially formulated in Marxist approaches, where the analysis often deals with the distribution of power between the different classes in society (Clegg et al. 2006).

  5. 5.

    Poststructuralist power conceives power as diverse, dynamic, and ubiquitous, which also makes it discrete and hidden. Here power consists in its being linked to relations (Foucault 1982).



In organizational literature, leadership is commonly defined as the task of solving problems through other people (Yukl 2013). Consequently, leadership comes with power. However, leadership is not necessarily linked to specific positions/people but can be spread across individuals or groups of employees in formal or informal patterns. These patterns vary over time and between different tasks depending on changing power relations. By these means, leadership always involves some kind of influence; a manager must be able to influence his followers. Without influence, leadership does not exist. Leadership and hence power are essential if organizations are to function and evolve. As such, leadership can be defined as “a process of influence which gets people to understand and agree on what needs to be done and how to do it, and a process that supports individual and collective efforts to achieve the common objectives.” (Yukl 2013, p. 26). It seems meaningful to include Foucault’s (1982) understanding of power as a relational and discursive phenomenon. Power and influence can thus be understood as dialectical processes in which power is a tool of influence, and influence is a source of power.

Power Over and Power To

The leadership pendulum has swung substantially in the direction of a post-heroic leadership style. Today’s ideal manager is a soft and caring team player who knows how to involve him/herself and how to dialog with and acknowledge employees in order to facilitate employee development, responsibility, and ownership (Pfeffer 2010). At the same time, every manager knows that not all organizational challenges can be met with participatory, dialogical, and appreciative leadership tools. Sometimes, a leadership task demands that the manager sets the direction more overtly, while at other times it requires employee involvement and coaching. In situations where the manager underscores the structural asymmetry, e.g., by using their right and obligation to hire and fire, it becomes especially clear that leadership is a power-based relationship.

The literature on power represents two general idea-historical lines of power-based relationships (Clegg and Clegg 2002). The first goes back to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and deals extensively with the question: What is power? This question is often described as a “power-over” perspective. One asks, “Who has power over whom?” This view of power is centered on the power structure: Who possesses power, who or what is the target, and how can power be identified? The other idea-historical line asks the question: “What does power do?” This line of thinking can be traced back to Niccoló Machiavelli (1469–1527). It is often described as a “power-to” perspective, i.e., inquiring about how power can be productive. The focus here is on how to concretely exercise power and on the effects it has on the individual’s consciousness.

Power in Organizations

According to the organizational theorist Mary Jo Hatch (2011, p. 1), “Organizations emerge when people work together to achieve a particular desired state or goal.” Organizations often consist of a large number of individuals, each with different backgrounds and interests. To get all of these individuals to work together to achieve a common organizational goal is basically associated with power (Clegg et al. 2006).

Previously, organizations were hierarchical and bureaucratic. This form of organization reinforced “power over”: Explicit, direct, and apparent power mechanisms (Clegg et al. 2006). Contemporary organizations (at least in a European context) are much more democratic, organic, and dialog oriented. The organizational structure has become more flexible and the boundaries more blurred. At the same time, power has been atomized; there no longer exists an unequivocal center or a distinct structure. Furthermore, recent theories of power in organizations suggest that execution of power frequently occurs in tacit and indirect variants. The concept of power is therefore extended to include discourses, strategic behavior, and socialization. Power is a relational phenomenon since it is not to be understood as an institution, a structure, or as having a specific location (Al-Amoudi 2007). Power relations are instead “immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitutes their own organization” (Foucault in Flyvbjerg 1992, p. 112).

The Triangle of Power

As demonstrated above, the literature on power has been characterized by continuous positioning battles between different dimensions and perspectives. This seems to call for a wider, more nuanced conception of power. The triangle of power is our attempt to develop an integrative and analytical framework of power – referring to a wide spectrum of power and influence dimensions. The triangle of power is elaborated on throughout the rest of this contribution. The strength of not limiting power to a narrowly defined concept is that it secures sufficient openness to what goes on in the field of power and leadership. A multiple power concept can help us sensitize to the diversity of the field and thus sharpen our awareness of the opportunities for changes in power relations.

The triangle of power is a model grounded in three different power perspectives that mutually contribute to understanding the working of power within leadership. It will be argued that an analysis of leadership should include all three perspectives and that successful leadership is precisely about balancing these power dimensions. The three perspectives of the power triangle are as follows:
  1. 1.

    Structural power contributes with its focus on the positional relationship in the organization and in the formal structure.

  2. 2.

    Personal approach contributes with its focus on properties and resources.

  3. 3.

    Discursive approach contributes with its focus on the organizational play of language and discursive power struggles, the informal processes.

The three power perspectives are interrelated, as the chart illustrates below (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

The interrelations between structural, personal, and discursive power

Structural power: The structural perspective on power is based on a zero-sum assumption. This means that more power to A means less power to B. This forms the basis for a conflict of interest between A and B as to who should have the power, and whose interests are to be protected. With reference to Robert A. Dahl (1957), power is thus described as a relation of influence between two individuals so that power occurs when A gets B to do something in accordance with A’s wishes that B would otherwise not have done. It is a “power-over” perspective, where power is viewed as a resource for the few, a repressive phenomenon that dominates, oppresses, and robs one of their freedoms. It is primarily a mono-centered understanding of power, a top-down perspective on the distribution of power. The organization therefore contains a number of positions, each with their own associated power constellations. Power is linked to specific actions and positions, such as the board, the executive, the middle manager, etc., and these are in possession of different degrees of power depending on their position in the hierarchy. Determining the power distance between the various actors in the organization, as well as their positions, is therefore central to a power analysis, since these factors will have a major influence on their behavior. The structural composition of the organization, e.g., the leadership hierarchy, composition of teams, etc., all contains mechanisms that allow for certain behavioral patterns. Power must therefore be understood as something possessed and imbedded in the person’s position in the organization (Parsons 1987).

Personal power: The renowned power researcher Steven Lukes (2005) has cautioned us, however, about exaggerating the importance of structural power in the organization. Structural power never fully determines people’s actions. Structural power can limit or promote possibilities for action. In an analysis of power, one should always take into account that individuals participate with a certain degree of free will and a variety of choices. The consequence is that the organizational structures have an influence on the individual, but that the individual, conversely, also has some influence on the organizational structures, e.g., by virtue of their unique and special characteristics. This means that their behavior cannot be reduced to the structural context of which they are part.

In line with the above, Gary Yukl (2013) points out that it is not only within the formal authoritative position in the organization that individuals can possess power. All persons in the organization, in their own way, are in possession of one or more power bases related to, for example, specific skills, previous experience, personal dispositions, personal background, etc. Already in 1959, French and Raven presented a theory of power’s “bases” (1959). Bases are power resources, understood as individual or group capacities in the organization. Central for French and Raven is that these power resources function by virtue of the fact that others acknowledge them. They list five types of power:
  1. 1.

    Reward power: The possibility to give and withhold reward. In the organizational context, reward power can manifest itself in the form of pay rises, employee perks, fringe benefits, promotion, or an offer to work on more attractive and exciting tasks.

  2. 2.

    Coercive power: The ability to punish or sanction. Within organizations, this could be the ability to demote an employee, issue warnings, or deprive an employee of bonuses. Ultimately, it could also be the power to fire the employee outright.

  3. 3.

    Legitimacy power: The power attached to a specific position in a given social context. A specific position and its associated power are internalized by the employees through socialization. Legitimacy power is exercised from a position in a social structure where it is customary or agreed that the holder of this position has the right to exercise influence over people in other positions. In an organizational context, the manager can be seen as a clear example of this.

  4. 4.

    Reference power: The power that individuals or groups possess due to their characteristics, which act favorably on the surroundings. Identification with the individual or group acts as the key element of this power. People with a lot of charisma are a clear example of reference power.

  5. 5.

    Expert power: The power that a person has, by virtue of others recognizing that they possess extensive knowledge and expertise in a particular area.

These power resources should be seen in relation to the individual (such as an experience or acquired knowledge) and in relation to the structure (such as institutional features, e.g., that certain professions and expertise are valued higher than others). The model shown below summarizes the characteristics of the structural and personal power dimensions (Fig. 2):
Fig. 2

The structural dimension versus the personal dimension of power

Several leadership scholars have emphasized that the personal power dimension is crucial for creating adherence to the organization’s mission and objectives (Yukl 2013). At the same time, it is important to emphasize that regardless of the increasing importance of personal power, managers can never escape their structural positional power. Similarly, it is clear that although a moderate amount of positional power increases the opportunities for personal power, positional power does not guarantee a personal power base (Yukl 2013). It is therefore important to analyze the power strategies used by the various managers, employees, and groups and to view them in interaction with the structural conditions. The interaction between structural power and personal power is a very relevant framework for applying such an analysis. But it does not allow us to take into account that society and the organization have a large number of institutional features which also affect the behavior and the relationship between individuals in organizations. To meet this challenge, a third aspect must be added: discursive power.

Discursive power: Our understanding of discursive power is based on Michel Foucault’s concept of power. Foucault opposes the traditional Hobbesian understanding of power as something one can own, distribute, or conquer (Foucault 1994). According to Foucault, the traditional understanding of power has its origins in the medieval development of the monarchy, the judicial system, the state and its apparatus and operates using “the law, prohibition and censorship’s ubiquitous wheel” (Foucault 1994, p. 90). Power is considered as a mechanism associated with and formulated by the power wielder, such as the monarch, the state, and the parents, over the oppressed, that is, as something negative and repressive (Foucault 2002, p. 41).

In contrast, Foucault emphasizes that power produces and creates: “Power (…) is the name given to a complex strategic situation in a given society” (Foucault 1994, p. 99). It is by its nature processual and operational. Foucault looks into how power is exercised, the mechanisms underlying power, as well as its intended and unintended consequences.

Power Is Knowledge: Knowledge Is Power

In the traditional understanding of power, power and knowledge are seen as separate from each other. Foucault believes, however, that power and knowledge implicate and require each other. He argues that it is necessary “to give up a whole tradition that gives the impression that there can be no knowledge where power relations are abolished, and that knowledge can develop only if free of its obligations, requirements and interests” (Foucault 2002, p. 42). He also points out that an analysis of the relationship between power and knowledge should not take a knowing subject as its starting point. Rather, it is the interaction between the power-knowledge relations that creates new knowledge, because power produces truth (Flyvbjerg 2003).

Power and knowledge come together in discourse to be understood as socially embedded structuring principles of what can be said about a given subject at a given moment in history. Power thus develops between people and operates unnoticed, as discourses, and as the structuring principle of modes of conduct. Foucault describes power as something that comes from everywhere, which means that it operates at macro-, meso-, and micro-levels (Heede 2002). It is through the discourse that language comes to play a central role in relation to grasping power. Foucault’s concept of power thus concerns the ubiquitous and discursive focus on relations and language. He argues that it is never possible to reach the truth because one can never speak from a position outside the discourses. The truth, rather, is embedded in and produced by power systems. As one cannot ever reach the truth, one should give up asking whether something is true or false, and instead focus on how truth effects are created.

Power Technologies

“Power technologies” are the technologies that seek to determine the behavior of individuals and submit them to goals and forms of discipline and control (Thompson and McHugh 2002). The prominent example of modern power technologies is Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon prison. Designed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the Panopticon is built so that prisoners, due to the backlight and the building construction, cannot see those who are monitoring them. The Panopticon is an architectural form, which, by putting the individual prisoner in a conscious and permanent state of visibility, ensures that power and the social order are maintained (Foucault 2002). This leads Foucault to the theory of modern leadership discipline. He shows that the prisoner’s constant awareness of being under surveillance means that he monitors and disciplines himself. Because of the ubiquitous surveillance from the control tower, the control becomes automated, and the individual internalizes the external power technology. Foucault uses the Panopticon as a metaphor for how power technologies in the eighteenth-century France began to transform sovereign power, in the form of external coercion, into a productive and positive power that regulates and disciplines the subject from within. Every prisoner has to constantly behave as if he was monitored. Foucault shows how power creates subjects who monitor and control themselves by adapting to the prevailing discourses. The point is that different power technologies in different historical periods create different value-related differences for how one should govern and live one’s life. Governing discipline is not something that just organizes and structures. It is a production of the orderly, the obedient, and the useful, which acts on and through the body. Many scholars have pointed out that the Panopticon illustration is not just a metaphor for the control of our modern industrial society (Hancock and Tyler 2001). This form of leadership discipline also operates prominently in today’s society and organizations.

Technologies of the Self

Today we tolerate power, says Foucault, only if it has managed to mask its expression. The methods of power have moved from explicit laws and threats of corporal punishment to the use of what he calls “normalization” and “technologies of the self” (Foucault 1994). Normalization refers to how different strategies for self-discipline bring individuals to act and experience themselves and each other in ways that are consistent with the prevailing discourse. Technologies of the self are specialized techniques that individuals use on themselves, on their own bodies, mind, and conduct, to regulate themselves in accordance with specific interpretations of the world. The spread of self-technologies is part of what Foucault called “governmentality”: The way in which a given society influences the individual’s inner life by getting the individual to govern himself (Jensen 2005). Examples of this are managers’ and employees’ self-discipline in relation to the self-monitoring possibilities provided by modern HR tools such as competency, performance contracts, and performance measures. One of Foucault’s heirs, the British sociologist Nikolas Rose (Hancock and Tyler 2001), has pointed out that the 1960s largely changed the form of organizations so that the employee took it upon himself to adapt to the company’s goals and expectations. An impression was created that the employee was free to live out his or her personal goals. The company’s goal, then, was to pursue innovation, flexibility, and competitiveness. Modern leadership, in Rose’s words, should “work directly on the self.” There is no doubt that Foucault’s main contribution to the understanding of power in organizations is his demonstration of the shift of power from being exercised by an external authority to power being supplemented by an inner control.

Leadership as a Social Construct

Foucault’s concept of power is important in a power analysis of an organizational context. It allows us to probe more deeply into the linguistic mechanisms which help to constitute historical and therefore arbitrary limits for a wide range of acts and forms of consciousness in the organization. With his insistence on power relations containing not just repressive but also a great deal of productive aspects, the discursive understanding of power opens the way toward applying power constructively in leadership contexts. In a discursive perspective, leadership is a social construct, like all other phenomena whose content is determined locally in social interactions. The real manager role becomes a result of subject positions which the manager is invited to take, and the manager invites others to take part in discursive interaction with both subordinate employees and superiors. The manager role is thereby self-created and contingent. The manager is cocreator of a common language of leadership and organization. This attitude clearly reflects the strong focus on language and its impact on the individual’s construction of reality. The manager’s task is to establish a sense of meaning and direction within the organization by cooperating with employees in order to create common discourses and narratives. These discourses and narratives unite employee experiences into a coherent and meaningful understanding of the employees themselves and the world. The discourses are thus important in that they give meaning to organizational life and constitute the basis upon which the employees carry out their self-managing role. At the same time, the discourses give the employees the experience of personal meaning in their work.


This contribution has focused on how leadership is linked to power. It has been argued that the three dimensions of power described above are needed in order to understand the complex power dynamics of leadership. It would be an inappropriate reduction to favor one dimension at the expense of others, and it would prevent us from understanding essential features of power relations. It is the manager’s job, regardless of the level of consciousness thereof, to react in the power field that often extends itself between the structural, personal, and discursive dimensions.

Leadership is always a power-based relationship. Taking the formal structural understanding of power as a starting point, we have argued that leadership is linked to various positions of power vertically in the organization. However, it is not sufficient to focus on the structural and formal aspects of leadership positions in organizations. Personal characteristics and interaction also play a key role, both positively in relation to strengthening the manager’s position and negatively in terms of perceiving a loss of legitimacy. We thus focus on an essential approach to understanding the manager’s actions and organizational legitimacy by examining the manager’s personal power base and how it is used. The goal of a power-oriented approach to leadership could thus be to strengthen the manager’s ability to act through enhanced insight into the dynamics of power in the field of tension constituted by the hard and soft types of power. Foucault contributed by showing us the linguistic and less visible forms of power where the manager becomes part of the discursive practices of the organization and where different perceptions of the organization thrive side by side. This happens without the involved persons necessarily being aware that there are other versions of reality than their own. This perspective begs the interesting question of why some forms of leadership can have greater impact than others in particular historic periods.

In sum, we can conclude that leadership in today’s organizations takes place in a context marked by arenas of interaction and contradictions, where antagonism and paradoxes constitute a basic condition. It is essential that leaders understand the complexity and contradictory nature of their work. They must relate to the power field of tension of which they are part by acting appropriately in relation to themselves, their employees, and the organization as a whole.


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of AalborgAalborgDenmark