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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Leadership not limited to positions of power, November 4, 2007, 2D.

In American culture, the word “leader” is used to mean many things.  Many people equate holding a position of authority with leadership.   A promotion into a management position, for example, is viewed by many as moving into a leadership position.  If “leader” is meant to mean power, influence, and control, then an appointment to a management position is a leadership position.  However, when the concepts of authority, power, leadership, and management are broken down and analyzed, differences between the concepts can be identified.  Being a team leader, for example, is not the same as being a team manager.  A more thorough investigation of these topics is needed to better understand their differences and similarities.

Leadership is a particular type of authority relationship.  Authority comes from the power that one holds over followers or subordinates.   In some cases, authority comes from the position that one holds in an organization, as described in the constitution or by-laws of the organization, and other times it is willingly given to the power holder by the followers.  The power gained from others arises from being viewed as special in some way.  Admiration, respect, charisma, expertise, and other personal characteristics can all add to perceptions of personal power and authority.  Power and authority gained from the position that one holds is termed “position power” and that which is earned and gained in the minds of people is called “personal power.”    

Amitai Etzioni, in his classic works on authority, compliance, and organizations, made distinctions between what he called officials, informal leaders, and formal leaders.  He said that those who gain their authority over others solely from the positions that they occupy are called officials.  Athletes comply with the rulings of referees and umpires in athletic events because of the authority vested in those positions—athletes and coaches do not comply because of personal characteristics of the officials.

On most sports teams, there are frequently players who arise as team leaders. They become team leaders not because of positions that they occupy, but because they are viewed as special.  Team leaders are the ones who inspire, motivate, and guide their teams with their effort, hustle, and performance.  Etzioni called those who influence others solely through the use of personal power as informal leaders.

Formal leaders, as described by Etzioni, are those who possess both personal and position power.   A well-respected and inspirational head coach would be a formal leader.  Such a coach possesses position power and personal power.  Etzioni uses the term “leader” to refer to those who possess personal power—as with an informal team leader or a formal inspirational coach.

Promotion into a management position is often accompanied by an increase in position power.  However, true leadership is not dependent upon position—it is related to personal power.  A promotion into a new management position can have the effect of turning an informal leader into a formal leader or adding more position power to someone who was already a formal leader.  It can also create officials.

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved