Many leaders, especially those new to leadership roles, make the mistake of wanting control over the actions people take rather than power over the people.

The rationale for this preference is different for different people.

A supervisor I managed many years ago was promoted to a management role on the other side of the country. I called him a month or so after his promotion to see how he was settling in being a manager rather than a supervisor.

He said he was finding in difficult. Supervisors would not do what he wanted and no matter how many times he demonstrated how things should be done, they did not comply. No matter how much he showed his displeasure they might conform for a while and then they would revert to “the way they had always done it”.

I enquired whether he had asked for their views on the changes he wanted to make. He said, “Yes”. I asked him what he did with their advice. He said, “I explained to them why it was wrong and told them they needed to change. I then showed some of the guys on the floor what they should be doing too.”

“What did they do with your requested changes”, I further enquired.

“Nothing”, came the reply.

I then enquired how he would have felt if I came into his area when I was his manager and started to tell him what he was doing wrong. “I would have not liked it”, he commented.

“What about it would you not have liked?” I probed further.

“I would not have liked you telling me what to do and doing my job for me”, he sighed the reply.

He was trying to control what they did and what their subordinates did rather than exert influence over them.

Power over a person means that we can influence what the other person does.

It is much better to have and to cultivate power than to try to exercise direct control. For one thing, if, as a manager, you are directly controlling what everyone does then you will be limited to running a very small organisation well or a larger organisation badly. Span of control and twenty-four hours in a day does not permit anything else to happen.

So if power over people is better, how do we as individuals build our power base and as managers help others to build their power?

Legitimate power can be increased by changing reporting lines, getting higher levels of authority and, sadly with some people, by changing titles and the trappings of office.

What is termed “Reward Power” can be increased simply by doing things for people. The sense of obligation that exists to do something to deserve the “reward” freely given is high in most people. In any new organisation where I am going to spend a lot of time, I know to make life easy for the personal assistants of the key people. Being flexible, polite and engaging builds a bank of rewards that one day, in most cases, will be redeemable.

Expert power can be changed by taking on extra learning and volunteering for cross functional projects to get greater breadth of expertise or by concentrating on a niche to get greater depth of expertise.

When I had my first ever serious discussion with a boss about my career development, he showed me a matrix with six boxes in it. Each box had a broad level of competence he wanted to “cross-off” to increase his likelihood of influencing Human Resources and senior management to progress his career. The jobs he had chased since joining the company were those jobs which ticked off a specific box. He was not seeking increased legitimate power in his career development; he was seeking increased expert power.

Confident, assertive (not aggressive) people have referent power. In my experience, leaders who lack expert and or referent power are more likely to want to control than influence.

My wife of more than thirty years is a good example. (I have to be careful here, she proof reads my articles).

Going back thirty years ago, my wife did not have much legitimate power and although she built rapport readily, by working hard at it, she did not have referent power. She needed, however, to have control to feel comfortable and relaxed about her daily life. She did not like change.

She also had a great sense of right and wrong and when leading groups wanted to control what they did to make sure they did what was “right”. When things were done which were not “right” she fell back automatically to legitimate, and at times, coercive power.

Fast forward thirty years and I increasingly see a powerful woman who relies on expert power occasionally and referent power most of the time.

“What changed?” you might asked. The answer is always many things but one example of how people can develop referent power and should be encouraged to develop referent power involves her work with choirs.

She always played music and loved singing. On our return to Australia some eight years ago she agreed to take on the administrative/leadership role of a choir she had joined. She had some experience in Fiji and in London of leading groups and felt she could cope.

Using the most severe yardstick, she didn’t. She hated cold calling looking for gigs. She did not delegate much. She did not like being directed by the head office in Canberra. She was not in control of the choir and did not like it. She resigned. She desperately wanted to sing but was upset enough that she left the choir for a short while. Some time after rejoining she was asked to take on the role again.

She made a better fist of the job this time. She delegated more, she forced herself to cold call looking for gigs and began to realise that it was not so hard once she had a “script” of the things to say. The control issue though had not gone away completely.

The remarkable moment came when she was asked to conduct the choir, the choirmaster of the time having moved overseas. She found something she was passionate about. She found something that did indeed give her high doses of power, legitimate power. After all, a conductor conducts and a choir follows.

Within weeks, she was transformed. The legitimate power had morphed into referential power. She was consulting with the choir members, innovating to make life easier for them, making choir more fun and challenging them as individuals and as a choir but knowing when to take a step back when the change is too much.

She now conducts three choirs a week as her reputation has spread. She is confident and caring and leads the people in her choirs to do things they thought they could not.

The key was to find something she was passionate about. Leaders with referent power have one thing in common above all; Passion!

My wife no longer seeks to control the choir or Canberra directly. She allows the passion for what she does to flow through in all of her choir activities. She now has the kind of power and control she could only have dreamt of through exercising control alone.