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What Is Referent Power in Leadership?

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Any great leader is expected to have certain kinds of power that help them stand out. In fact, at least six different types of powers have been identified when it comes to leadership.

From expert to informational power, each of these serves a different purpose and is useful in its own way, but the one that gives the utmost influence over others and is crucial for effective leadership is the referent power.

In this blog, we’ll delve into understanding what referent power is, why it can be so impactful, and how to build it to become a great leader.

What Is Referent Power?

Referent power is the ability of a leader to influence others’ actions, behavior, and thought process due to the respect, admiration, and likability they gain from their followers.

It’s a form of soft and informal power that relies on the leader’s personal qualities, interpersonal skills, and magnetism. People with referent power are well-liked and respected by their followers, which makes them persuasive and influential.

In fact, followers see these leaders as role models, imitate their behaviors and actions, and follow what they say.

In the workplace, when a leader has referent power, their employees tend to work harder, and their teams go the extra mile as they value their leader and look for their validation.

However, one thing to note here is that people with referent power have the ability to influence others’ behavior and actions, even if they don’t hold any formal authority or official position in the organization. For example, any political candidate or leader can have referent power to persuade others to follow their party.

Note: Referent power can be built and harnessed by a political leader, coach, employer, manager, etc. But, in this blog, we are majorly using the word leader to refer to ‘employers’ or ‘managers’ and followers to refer to ‘employees’ or ‘team’ in the workplace.

Types of Power

According to the psychologists Bertram Raven and John R.P. French, there are six types of power in leadership: coercive, reward, legitimate, expert, referent, and informational. Here are the short summaries of these powers.

Coercive Power

It’s a fear-based power that uses intimidation to influence others. This power uses the psychology that a leader can punish individuals for not doing things as instructed.

Reward Power

This power is gained by offering rewards or perks to others. It’s a formal power in which leaders reward their followers to make them act in a certain way.

Referent Power

It’s a type of soft power that is based on the interpersonal skills of a leader. It’s mostly obtained from personal charisma and magnetism that help leaders earn their followers’ trust and respect.

Expert Power

Leaders gain this power because of their expertise, skills and experience. This power comes from having deep and expert knowledge of a subject that can be used to influence others who know less about it.

Legitimate Power

This power is derived from the formal position or authority a person holds in the organization. In other words, a leader wields this power because of their job title or their position.

Informational Power

This form of power is based on accessing and controlling the information needed by others.

Among these powers, referent power allows leaders to have an influence over others because of the respect and admiration they get from their followers. It’s an informal type of power that is non-coercive, meaning that the followers are not forced to be under the power due to any external forces or authority.

Why Is Referent Power Important?

Commanding others through coercion or because of the position you hold doesn’t work in the long term. This is where referent power can step up the game.

Referent power creates a strong connection between the leader and their followers. It inspires the followers to imitate the way their leaders think, act, and behave. If harnessed in the right way in a workplace, this power can inspire teams to commit to their jobs and encourage them to work together on a common goal.

Here are some more points on why referent power plays a crucial role in the modern workplace.

Improves Employee Morale and Engagement

Venerable leaders act as role models for the entire team, and their behavior influences others to behave in a similar way. For instance, a leader who is devoted to work can inspire others to dedicate themselves to their roles and responsibilities. 

Similarly, if a leader enjoys working and leisure time to maintain a good work-life balance, it sets an example for employees to be devoted to work and have a life outside work simultaneously.

Improves Employee Retention

Employers or managers with referent power make others feel comfortable and pay heed to their concerns and queries. Thus, employees who work with such a leader are less likely to quit their jobs.

Many employees resign from their jobs due to disputes or conflicts with the manager or employer. However, if they have an employer or manager they admire, trust and respect, they would barely think of leaving their job as they would like to work with such a leader.

Improves Work Performance and Productivity

One of the greatest advantages for leaders with referent power is that their employees follow in their footsteps.

Suppose the employees find the following qualities in their leaders, such as:

  • taking a fair share of the work
  • not procrastinating the work
  • being punctual in terms of reporting
  • staying committed to timely deliveries, etc.

Then there are chances that their employees would follow suit, as they appreciate these qualities in their leader. 

Additionally, employees tend to work harder and are willing to go the extra mile when they feel that their efforts will be recognized and appreciated by their leader. This way, referent power can help improve work performance and productivity in the organization.

Helps Develop Trust in Employees

Referent leaders nurture the workplace with positivity and relationships with trust. They promote a work culture where employees don’t hesitate to contact them. 

Also, referent leaders empathize and support their teams, due to which their employees feel comfortable discussing any query or issues with them. 

Thus, this power can help you build trust and enhance your standing with team members.

marking employee satisfaction

Promotes Equity and Collaboration

Healthy collaboration promotes equity and minimizes the bureaucratic approach in the company. Referent leaders with a democratic approach encourage their employees to share their opinions and welcome their ideas. This way, employees feel their views and ideas are being heard and valued.

In other words, referent power promotes workplace democracy and helps leaders make informed decisions on important matters based on everyone’s opinions and points of view.

How to Build Referent Power

elements necessary to build referent power

Building referent power requires a person to cultivate certain qualities. These include being a good mentor, confident, authentic, fair, and empathetic, to name a few. Let’s have a look at these in detail below:

Be a Good Mentor

Mentoring is all about guiding others to work in a certain way to achieve the expected outcome. Generally, mentees see their mentor as a role model and seek their advice or guidance in their time of need. 

So, one of the best ways to obtain this power is to guide others in the right direction using your knowledge, experience and expertise.

Apart from knowledge and experience, being a good mentor requires you to have interpersonal skills, such as: 

  • communicating in a clear manner
  • providing constructive feedback 
  • building positive connections with employees

Be Fair

One of the best ways to obtain referent power is to practice fairness and equity. Make sure that you give even-handed treatment to all team members without any bias.

A fair leader should also be self-aware and transparent. At the same time, they should be assertive enough to speak out against anything unfair in the workplace.

Simply put, a leader who is fair, just, and reasonable stands a chance to gain the trust of employees and develop a referent power.

Be Confident

Self-confidence and leadership always go hand in hand. 

Whether it’s a team, organization, or any political group, a leader should be confident as it helps instill self-belief and positivity in others. Needless to say, no one would want to follow a leader who shows uncertainty, low confidence, and anxiety.

Thus, if you’re willing to build referent power, start by projecting confidence in your capabilities and look self-assured.

Be Authentic

People can easily spot if their leaders are being insincere. To obtain referent power, you, as a leader, must be true to your values, words, and convictions. 

An honest leader like this brings a sense of security and credibility to employees.

Be Visionary

People are naturally attracted by visionary leaders who focus on forward thinking. Such leaders can clearly communicate their ideas, visions, and future goals to their followers and motivate them to achieve that goal.

Be Connected

One of the main factors in building referent power is to build the connection by giving your supporters personal attention and time. 

Want your followers to admire or respect you?

Then set aside some time to know them personally and start building positive relations with them. Meet them one-on-one and ask if they have any queries, concerns, or issues. 

By practicing empathy, leaders can offer assistance, build trust, and forge good relationships with the teams. Such small steps will show that you care about them and are ready to help whenever they need.

low angle shot of colleagues cheering at work

Be a Good Delegator

Delegating the authority of tasks is a gesture of implicit trust and a key to building strong bonds between leaders and employees. 

When you delegate the authority of important work to your staff, it shows that you have confidence and faith in their capabilities that they’ll do the job right. 

Delegating the ownership of a task not only makes them accountable for their work but also boosts their morale, ultimately adding up to your referent power.

How to Use the Referent Power in the Workplace

While having certain qualities helps build referent power, there are several ways to use such power, including taking a stand for the team you are leading, setting an example, being true to your words and more.

Stay True to Your Words

Nothing can make a leader lose their credibility and respect like unkept promises. If you promise your employees that you’ll look into a matter or resolve it, pay heed to it whenever you get time. Addressing and resolving the employees’ issues in a timely manner can help you gain their trust and respect.

However, keeping your promises may become difficult if your staff starts bringing minor issues to you every now and then. To tackle such situations, you can discuss the most recurring and common issues with the staff and try to look for the best solution in everyone’s presence. Also, for matters that may take time, assure that you’ll take a look and update them whenever possible.

Always remember not to overcommit.

Compliment Your Employees

When employees receive praise for their hard work, it encourages them to perform to the best of their abilities. 

So, whenever any project is successfully completed, celebrate its feat with the entire team and give them a big shout-out for their efforts. 

Additionally, do ensure to publicly recognize the contribution of those who put extra effort into achieving the goal. 

When you praise employees for their efforts, it inspires them to work harder and reinforces positive behavior.

It also minimizes counterproductive behavior and improves employee engagement.

Follow the Rules You Impose on Others

A great leader follows the rules they set for others. For instance, if you ask your employees to be punctual at the office, but you mostly fail to arrive on time, then employees can see that your actions are in conflict with your rules.

So always put yourself in the same equation as your employees and lead by example instead of giving yourself special privileges.

For instance, if you take some productive measures, such as banning the use of social media sites at the workplace, then make sure that this rule is applicable to you as well.

Listen to Your Employee’s Issues

Getting to know your employees and listening to their issues actively is the key to building a referent power.

When you listen to employees’ concerns, queries, and issues, they feel valued, heard, and acknowledged. Active listening creates a space for employees to voice their thoughts and opinions, which also reduces employee turnover rates.

Tips to practice active listening:

  • Use non-verbal cues as a gesture that you’re completely paying attention, such as nodding your head, saying ‘Yes,’ and ‘Un huh,’ or smiling as per the situation. Such non-verbal cues show that you’re listening attentively and encouraging the speaker to continue.
  • Maintain eye contact with your employee when they’re expressing their issues. It indicates that your entire attention is on the conversation. However, too much eye contact can sometimes be intimidating, so practice breaking the eye contact every five seconds or so, then look to the other side and resume it again.
  • Check your gesture and posture while you’re having a conversation with your employees:
    • Avoid sitting posture with crossed arms or crossed legs, as it makes a person look ‘closed’ or defensive. 
    • You can slightly lean forward while sitting, which indicates that you’re listening attentively.
    • Avoid checking your phone or watch repeatedly. It hints that you are no longer interested in the discussion and trying to close it.

Take a Stand for Your Team

A good leader with referent power takes ownership of not only the team’s success but also its failures. In fact, they should be courageous enough to avoid playing the blame game in front of the clients or other teams. 

A team lead/manager with referent power takes a stand for their team during times of workplace conflicts. They should try to resolve such conflicts by addressing the matter immediately, using active listening, neutral terms and respecting personal opinions.

Listen Without Judgement

If someone in your team makes a mistake, listen to their explanations with an open mind instead of pointing a finger in front of everyone. When you give your employees a chance to tell their side of the story about what went wrong, they’ll be honest in their explanations instead of offering flimsy excuses. 

For any mistakes, avoid singling out the individuals responsible for it. Instead, discuss how the mistake was made and what points to keep in mind so that its repetition can be avoided in the future. This way, you can be solution oriented and turn any mistake into a teachable moment.

Keep an Open Mind

One of the key steps to developing referent power is to be open-minded and receptive to ideas from team members.

Brainstorm with your team while making a decision to include their views and suggestions. This will show that you’re open-minded and willing to see things from different perspectives. When you pay heed to your staff’s suggestions, ideas and opinions, it fosters creativity and inclusivity among the team members.

Invest in Your Team

Leaders who take substantial steps to invest in their teams and help them grow are more likely to have engaged employees. You, as an employer or manager, can schedule one-on-one meetings with your team members to understand how you can help them upskill. 

You can invest in your team in various ways, including empowering them with automation tools to work productively or providing them with on-the-job training programs. This investment in team members will show that you care for them, which will ultimately help you earn their trust and respect.

Make Honesty the Cornerstone of Leadership

Honesty and integrity work as the pillars of referent power; abstaining from these can make you lose the trust of your team.

For example, if you make any mistake, admit it immediately instead of blame-shifting. When you openly admit your mistake and discuss the ways to correct it with your team, it helps you earn the trust of the people you lead. 

Openly talking about your less-than-perfect decisions and mistakes is the best move you can make as a referent leader. Such small acts will help you gain their respect as an ethical leader.

The Downsides of Referent Power

Harnessing referent power in a positive way can be a real game changer in the workplace. It can help leaders get people to commit to their work and ensure that they follow the rules and regulations that have been set. 

However, this power has some downsides as well since a person in authority can try to abuse it for personal gain. 

For instance, if someone in a position of authority makes decisions driven by self-interest, then it can potentially threaten the business outcomes. 

A leader can also abuse referent power for favoritism, nepotism, and other such discriminations.

While leaders with good morals bring people together to work cohesively on a common goal, people with bad morals can misuse this power tremendously. Adolf Hitler sets the perfect example of the misuse of referent power.

Moreover, the misuse of referent power can also lead to a centralization of power. Especially in an organization, the centralization of referent power can make employees feel that decisions are being made in a bureaucratic manner and they have no input or ownership in it.

Examples of Referent Power

Over the years, there have been several referent leaders in the field of business, politics, and even philanthropy. Let’s have a look at the impact they’ve made and what sets them apart as an influential referent leader.

Steve Jobs

steve jobs image

Steve Jobs once stated, “Management is about persuading people to do things they don’t want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could”. The stand-alone statement is enough to inspire people to pursue their goals.

Steve Jobs was regarded as a visionary of his time who would settle for nothing less than perfection. In fact, he is said to be a tough taskmaster, but people followed him and stood beside him due to his passion, strong determination, and confidence. 

In fact, Apple’s Andrew Herzfeld stated that “Jobs imbued employees with a ‘messianic zeal’ and would make them feel that they’re working on the greatest product in the world”. This is the reason people were willing to go the extra mile for him. That’s also the reason why many entrepreneurs still look up to him as an inspirational figure.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela image

Nelson Mandela is someone who personifies what it means to be a leader with referent power. His long struggle against apartheid in South Africa led him to become the most venerable leader in the world as well as the first black president of South Africa. He motivated people through his charisma and moral authority, ultimately inspiring them to work together towards a common goal.

His unwavering determination and dedication to bringing social justice helped him gain immense popularity among people, ultimately leading to the establishment of a democratic government. He used to see democracy as a collective triumph that was achieved through collective efforts, giving a deep sense of his referent power.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey image

Oprah Winfrey exemplifies a woman leader who harnessed her referent power to impact society significantly. Though she doesn’t hold any public position, her leadership style has earned her great respect, such that people look up to her as a role model. 

Known as the ‘Queen of All Media’, she can inspire others with her powerful words and sets an example of why women can make great leaders. Oprah has built trust with her audience by sharing her personal stories and experiences of struggle – a process that was termed as ‘Oprahfication’ by The Wall Street Journal, calling it a form of therapy.

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

APJ Abdul Kalam image

The list is incomplete without naming this eminent scientist, who made an immense contribution to India’s development, both as a scientist and president. Kalam was called the “People’s President” during his presidency due to his sincerity, compassion, and down-to-earth nature. 

Undoubtedly, he acquired the referent power from his kindness and humility, making him the most adored leader in India. He believed that leaders must have a vision and should lead by example.

Bottom Line

Leaders with referent power can easily gain influence over their followers or teams due to their likability and admiration from the followers. When a leader has referent power, people are more likely to listen to them and follow their suggestions as their followers consider them practical models and trustworthy figures. This way, referent power can help leaders achieve any goal with the help of their teams/employees/followers.

If a leader abuses this power, they can quickly lose the respect in the eyes of the followers, but if they use this power judiciously and for the well-being of others, they can bring a tremendous positive change in several areas.

Referent power can play a crucial role in the modern workplace as well, as it fosters trust between supervisors/employers and employees and helps leaders to get their subordinates to commit to their work.


Q.1 What is the referent power in leadership?

Referent power in leadership is the ability to influence followers due to the reverence gained by a leader with strong interpersonal skills. This non-coercive power is acquired by being fair, confident, authentic, a good mentor, and a visionary. It can also be built by building connections with the followers and delegating responsibilities.

Q.2 What does referent power mean?

Referent power is the ability of leaders to influence their followers due to the admiration and respect they get from them. A leader’s charisma, attractiveness, and interpersonal skills play crucial roles in obtaining this power. 

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Sonika Malviya


Sonika Malviya


Sonika is a Marketing Communications Specialist at Deltek | Replicon, specializing in covering topics related to time tracking and workforce management software. With her in-depth knowledge of these topics, she translates technical details into understandable and relatable content to empower businesses to optimize their productivity, improve their workflows, and achieve greater success in managing their time. Beyond her professional role, Sonika finds solace and inspiration in her travels. She also practices meditation and has a flair for culinary experimentation, always eager to try her hand at cooking new cuisines.


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