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Legitimate power: How to use your authority the ethical way

a man wearing a captain suit knows he has the legitimate power and authority in his field

Your teacher has the power to fail you on a test.

Your boss has the power to give you a promotion and a higher paycheck.

Your mom has the power to call you an ungrateful dingus and lock you out the house for the afternoon. (That happens to everyone, right?)

These are all types of legitimate power - control wielded by people because of their authority and position.

It's one of the most desirable types of power, and if you're in a position of authority, or hoping to be in future, you've got to use it correctly. If not, the consequences can be dire.

We'll explore what legitimate power is, how to use it responsibly, and how it differs from the other types of power you might be seeking.

Table of contents
What is legitimate power?
The five types of power
Legitimate power: the Fingerprint for Success approach
Examples of legitimate power
Legitimate power: how to use it effectively
The advantages of legitimate power
The disadvantages of legitimate power

What is legitimate power?

Legitimate power is the ability to influence others through the use of position or authority.

It's derived from your role in an organization or society, and it's often accompanied by respect and admiration from others.

Legitimate power is different from other types of power, such as expert power (that comes from having specialist knowledge or expertise) or reward power (the ability to give someone something they want), in that it doesn't always come from your actions. Sometimes, you gain it through sheer luck, like if you're born into a family that has existing power.

There are three factors that contribute to the strength of legitimate power:

Position: The formal position a person holds in an organization or society determines their level of legitimacy. For example, a CEO has more legitimate power than a cashier at a supermarket.

Authority: Someone's authority is based on their ability to make decisions and enforce rules. For example, a judge has more authority than a lawyer in the courtroom.

Credibility: A person's credibility is based on everyone else recognizing their power as legitimate and correct. For example, citizens of a country agree that the police have authority above them in many situations.

The five types of power

Legitimate power is easier to understand in context, next to the other types of power you can wield.

Legitimate power sits alongside four other types of power that were identified back in 1959, by influential social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven.

These are the ways in which a person can gain and exert power over other people in various different social and professional contexts.

They're divided into two types: positional, and personal.

We go into more detail on each one in our guide to the different types of power, but here's how they work in short.

Personal power

This is the kind of social power you gain from the intrinsic value you bring to people; it means they like you, respect you, and can learn from your knowledge and wisdom.

  • Expert power - when you're an expert in a particular field (also known as informational power - knowing things that others don't)
  • Referent power - the 'soft' form of power gained when people like and respect you for being honest and trustworthy

Positional power

This is the sort of power you get from having a dominant position in a hierarchy. It's a sort of power that's difficult for people to object to.

  • Coercive power - influence that comes from the threat of harm or punishment
  • Reward power - the ability to give incentives, bonuses or payments for certain behavior
  • Legitimate power - power from titles and positions of influence

Legitimate power: the Fingerprint for Success approach

At Fingerprint for Success we like to enable the innate talent and strength people have, helping them develop their skills and flourish within their relationships.

Typically, this enhances their personal power more than the positional, because we focus on skills that anyone can improve in, no matter what their position.

In fact, we actually have a coaching program dedicated to improving your Personal Power. This involves learning how to improve your day-to-day leadership abilities, navigating office politics and business hierarchies, and building up your confidence to step into a demanding role. So there's actually a good bit of crossover into the realm of legitimate power, too.

That said, the skills we teach through our coaching programs can improve your ability to reach positions of legitimate power. Getting promoted or hired for a senior position is very much possible when you focus on enhancing certain aspects of your interpersonal skills.

Big Picture Thinking can help you grasp abstract concepts and come up with big ideas - perfect for mapping out ambitious strategies and convincing people to get on board with your plans.

Vital Wellbeing helps you improve your focus and energy for the things you need to concentrate on. That includes feeling good about yourself and being confident that you're in the driver's seat with the resilience to cope with whatever challenges life throws at you.

That's the way we like to approach it; a bit more holistic. Improving your personal power helps build your legitimate power, which means you're in a position to wield both. (If you're curious about the courses we have available - all doable in eight weeks, via 5-15 minute lessons twice a week - have a look on our coaching page.)

We'd certainly hope you don't use your new powers for evil, of course. If you end up with the ability to use coercive power, it's rarely the most ethical power to wield, and even if you try to keep things 'legit', it's not always the most effective way to do things.

So let's take a look at some examples of legitimate power, and how you can use it in a sensible and ethical way.

Examples of legitimate power

Business owner

By having the authority to hire, fire, and command people, the legitimate power inherent in being the owner of a business is crystal clear.

Employees know that you're the ultimate authority when it comes to their welfare, and in return for you teaching them, regularly paying them, and providing benefits (generous ones, we hope!), they'll provide their labor and advice. It's usually a pretty simple arrangement.

Head of state

Point to anywhere on a globe and you'll find a nation with a head of state or a political leader of some sort. They might be elected, installed by a government, sieze power through violence, or have hereditary power granted by birth.

Queen Elizabeth II of England is an example of the latter; while not elected, she does still wield legitimate power over the nation by virtue of being the leading monarch. This power is supported by the agreement of most UK citizens - an example of a collective social structure that enables the ongoing recognition of a legitimate power.

People in positions of significant legitimate power can, of course, tip over into coercive power, where citizens are afraid of what might happen to them if they go against their wishes. (Unlikely to happen with Her Majesty, but you never know.)

But cultural norms, democratic processes and historical constitutions all play a part in limiting a state leader's power, in case they take things too far.

Parent

A parent's influence over their child is an example of legitimate power that's granted and recognized without formal ceremony.

(The state usually recognizes it, but it's rare that a child demands to see the official documentation of their parenting credentials when Dad tells them to brush their teeth before bed).

That power is usually tested when their child becomes a teenager; "you can't tell me what to do!" is a common sentiment from rebellious teens that are starting to see the cracks in their parents' authority.

In most cases, though, the legitimate power remains in the hand of the parent by the resources they control. Young Jayden may not drop out of school to join the circus, because Mom pays his allowance and has the keys to the house.

Legitimate power: how to use it effectively

When we think of gaining power through legitimate authority, it brings to mind images of despotic dictators and tyrannical CEOs, ruling over their respective kingdoms with iron fists.

This sort of rule goes hand in hand with coercive power: influencing people through fear and threat. But the authority that comes with legitimate power can be benevolent, and we'd hope that's what you're aiming for.

It can be tempting to go on a 'power trip' when you gain a position of authority, but you have to keep a few things in mind to prevent things from falling apart.

Remember to be a good leader

Power alone does not make a good leader. Many citizens in countries around the world will happily tell you that.

Effective leadership is a crucial skill and entire discipline in itself. Entire libraries can be dedicated to the art of leadership, so we don't have room to sum it up in a sentence. But whichever leadership style you pick, make sure to dedicate yourself to it and do it well.

(We'd recommend starting with servant leadership if you're not already familiar - it's a model for building strong organizations through service to others.)

If you don't end up being a good leader, you may find that the authority you initially wield begins to fade. In the world of soccer, a manager is said to have "lost the dressing room", when the players lose faith in their instructions and stop putting in the effort.

People might still take instructions from you because of your authority over them, but if they're unhappy, they'll start to give the bare minimum, rather than giving their all. Over time, this means your organization just won't perform to the best of its abilities, and might even begin to fail. Watch out.

Remember it's not all about you

If you start thinking your work is finished just because you achieved some recognition and a badge of honor, you're already in trouble.

Your purpose as an authority figure is to serve the group members you represent. By resting on your laurels just because you can, you're letting them down as well as letting yourself down.

Sure, take a moment to celebrate a big achievement or milestone - then get back to work. As Ryan Holiday puts it in Ego is the Enemy:

"Your potential, the absolute best you're capable of - that's the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.Y

You're not as good as you think. You don't have it all figured out. Stay focused. Do better."

Remember all things are temporary

In almost all cases, your authority won't last forever. Whether it's through changing environments, new opportunities, or even a revolt of your subordinates, you can always be ousted.

"The King is dead. Long live the king!"

Humility and grace are your secret weapons here, not clinging onto every last shred of power you can exert until the bitter end. Instead, see yourself as a temporary steward of an honorable position, responsible for serving others more than yourself. When your time is up, it's over. Move on, take some time to rest and refresh your skills, and get back out there when the time is right.

The advantages of legitimate power

There are a few key advantages to using legitimate power as your main source of influence, if you're fortunate enough to get it.

First, it's the most visible and easily accepted form of power. Whether that comes from a job title, societal status, political position, or just a badge and a fancy suit - people know you're the real deal. Legitimate power is usually immediately visible, and if not, you'll soon be told about it by others under its influence.

Second, it builds trust and relationships. When people feel like they're being heard and that their concerns are taken seriously, they're more likely to cooperate with you. This creates a positive feedback loop where your legitimacy is reinforced by the good work you enable people to do. Your authority as a 'resource controller' comes into play when you can use it to help people develop and flourish; for example, paying for their professional development will make them better workers but is also likely to make them more loyal.

Finally, it doesn't suffer much pushback. When it's obvious that you're the one in charge, someone disagreeing with your direction can't overtly challenge your authority. They can take action against you indirectly or with underhand methods, like fomenting dissent within their peer group with the intent to oust you from your position. But unless you're really pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable, having a badge of authority is one of the best ways to influence people to do what you want them to do. (Situations like these are what the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" was made for.)

The disadvantages of legitimate power

While it's one of the most desirable forms of social influence, legitimate power isn't without its drawbacks. Some of the negative effects of legitimate power are:

There's always the possibility it can tip over into coercive power. Depending on the hierarchy and structure of the organization you're wielding influence in, you may end up with pretty much free reign to take control. This might appeal to the megalomaniac in all of us (or at least some of us), but unchecked control can easily be taken advantage of. It's up to you to be responsible and do the right thing to the best of your abilities. If you don't, you may find that even higher powers can have you replaced at the drop of a hat.

It also has the ability to dissuade open conversation and collaboration. This isn't always a good thing, especially in environments that thrive on openness and cooperation. While you might be a likeable and trustworthy leader, in a position of legitimate power you will always have the ability to bring down negative consequences for those underneath you. This means your very existence might stifle debate and healthy conversation if people are afraid of what'll happen to them. You'll have to continuously work hard to build an organizational culture where problems can be discussed out in the open without fear of censure or punishment.

One threat of having legitimate power is that it can make it hard to trust people. It's one of the most coveted types of power, and many people will lust for your throne. Not only do you have to watch out for the people you lead, you'll also have to watch your back. In politics, this is a given, but the threat of being betrayed or ousted from your position is also present in businesses, social cliques, sports clubs, charities - even the local Dungeons & Dragons club. This type of power can make you paranoid - do you think you can handle it?

Finally, legitimate power is often hard to get. By definition, only a small number of people in any given population will gain legitimate power, so if you really want it, you'll have to work hard. That might be through education and qualifications, building up financial capital, campaigning politically, building relationships, or navigating office politics.

You'll probably need to be exceptionally good at what you do to climb the ladder into a legitimate power position. But that's not to dissuade you; setting ambitious goals and achieving them is something anyone can do if they're truly motivated.

Feel more comfortable embracing your power with our 8-week online coaching program, Personal Power.

It's free, and 90% of users achieve their goals within 4-8 weeks.

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