The seven sources of power for effective leaders

Leadership involves moving others, and moving others involves power. If leaders in business and society are to move groups of people towards the achievement of valuable common purposes, or move them to adapt in order to survive and thrive, where do they find the engine power to do that?


We sat down with Richard Searle, Associate Program Director on Melbourne Business School’s Executive Education Programs to talk the keys to leadership success and how to harness the power to lead others.

1.Formal authority

Formal authority can be a major asset for leadership and it confers all sorts of powers on “the leader”. One advantage from formal authority is that it gets you lots of attention and attention is the currency of leadership. It allows you to keep directing attention to the critical issues and, orchestrate internal conflicts in constructive ways. It also allows you to pace the work of change and to modulate the levels of anxiety that can arise from that while enabling you to shape the decision making processes from highly directive to highly consensual.

2.Informal authority

Informal authority may be an even more valuable source of what is sometimes called “soft power” for leadership. Here people authorise you to lead them because of what you represent for them and the value that you provide for them. Credibility is important to gaining access to this source of power and that is done through demonstrating expertise and capability, as well as demonstrating values and integrity which matter to others. This source of power can also be accessed by being of value to others by protecting them or maintaining harmony in the group or sorting out roles for people or by respecting the prevailing norms and culture of the group.


Although it is pretty much impossible to exercise any effective leadership without informal authorisation from others, leaders can’t just sit around waiting for a pat on the shoulder. Sometimes they may need to exceed their authority temporarily if they are to get any traction. In some circumstances, only those leaders will succeed who can go out on a limb and authorise themselves in the face of resistance or apathy or the lack of an immediate mandate from others, and trust themselves to win the backing of others not by bullying them but rather convincing them.

At other times external circumstances can demand leadership action, and our people may or may not be looking for leadership too, but the resistance or apathy or lack of a mandate is being generated internally by the leader herself. The leader is telling herself all the reasons why she is not the one to act, and why this is not her time to act and why it is far too risky. It is those leaders who can authorise themselves to lead in the face of their own disempowering identity and judgements, who are most powerful. Where does one go to find that strength? Each of us needs to find that quiet place inside ourselves where we can go when this sort of personal courage is called for.

4.Collective effort

Senior managers on leadership courses at Melbourne Business School regularly confess astonishment when they discover the level of relationship and communication and common purpose which they have developed in a short period of time with a complete group of strangers. They are also amazed at how empowering such an environment is and how much creativity it unleashes. Collaborative environments can even help leaders appreciate the extent of their own leadership capability.

The other bonus for a leader in a collaborative environment is that the work and pressures of leadership itself can be distributed around more evenly. There is nothing more powerful than a less burdened leader.


The leadership myth of the heroic individual often just results in more martyrs.

Solo leaders are too easily marginalised – especially when they are not yet the CEO (and even then)! Effective leaders are strategic and diligent about building a network of allies. Politics is not always a dirty word in organisations. It can be a lot more honourable than gossip or backstabbing. Political power in institutions is real and it can be developed and used by leaders for good just as it can be used for egotistical reasons. Leaders who want to change things will constantly come up against powerful and systemic blockages.
The individual leader is often powerless in the face of the resistance. This is where leaders need to be strategic and have their allies organised.


Mindfulness is the practice which enables leaders to “catch” the thousands of guises and ruses that their ego indulges in, and it will provide the moments of pause where responsibility can be taken and free choices made. A healthy ego is not a bad thing, but being able to let go of the ego’s excessive neediness, reactivity, and urge to control everything, frees up a lot of power and energy for a leader. It also allows leaders to focus all their energy on the real leadership work required at the time.


And the final source of power for leaders is so simple and effective it is almost embarrassing to mention. Leaders need to build leadership muscle in the same way that anyone builds muscle.
They need to practice, practice and practice!

This is an edited extract from Richard Searle’s latest book “Leadership On Top: How Managers and Others Become Leaders” from Vivid Publishing. Find out more about how you can practice your leadership muscle in the ‘Leading for Strategic Success’ program.