How To Strike the Balance Between Personal and Positional Power

Estimated reading time: 1 mins

A leader has five sources of power, and each has its place. Using power wrongly often means that leader’s lose their influence (and then their followers). How should the balance be struck?

How often do you tell, and when do you sell? A leader with authority has the option to do both, but each is a path with widely different consequences.

When we tell (instruct using Positional Power), we give an instruction that must be followed without question (God damn it!) Followers are not consulted, but specifically directed without giving them their own opinion on how to achieve the desired outcome. The advantage of this path is that the desired outcome tends to happen quickly. The downside of this tactic is that it often undermines followers and disengenders them. What often follows, a little later, is a reduction in respect and loyalty.

When we sell (persuade using Personal Power), however, we give followers a choice. They’re not required to achieve an outcome in the manner we suggest, but make their own mind up. The advantage of this path is that the relationship between leader and follower is enhanced – trust and respect grows. Followers gain a learning experience. The downside of this tactic is that it often takes too long for the desired outcome to realize, and sometimes the result is total failure.

It’s a fine line to tread – a leader must use either tactic. It requires experience, judgment and insight. I believe there is a rule of thumb to employ which can guide us in which path to take:

If a leader’s assessment of followers is such that followers are not motivated enough to achieve the desired outcome by themselves, they must TELL (instruct). If followers are motivated to achieve the result off their own bat, then they must SELL (persuade).

In a nutshell, to make the best decision on what basis of power to employ, we must assess if the short-term goal is more important than a dip in our followers’ confidence and motivation, and our own position of influence. Using Personal Power generally had the most sustainable leadership outcome.

Need to know more?

Check out this great paper available on HBS Working Knowledge – Authority versus Persuasion.


About the author /

Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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  1. Asif Shah

    Great tips here. There is a fine line. I often feel when I am told that my opinion doesn’t count. We only learn when we try things for ourselves and maybe make a few mistakes in the process, but the long-term benefit is that we do learn and are more capable!

    • simonstapleton

      Asif, that’s a risk a leader takes if they tell! Equally, the risk they take if they ‘sell’ is that the desired outcome might not occur


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