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Educator Corner: Influence - Activating personal power

Educator Corner is a feature on the blog that will appear regularly. Each entry will feature 1 of the 9 Leadership and Civic Engagement educators from around the state providing space for their thoughts on what may be useful for leaders and followers practicing in their communities and organizations.

TSpanier.jpg"I don't have the positional power to make this happen."

I recently heard this comment from a person who was interested in getting others in the community involved in a local project. As our conversation continued she went on to say, "I can get people to say yes simply because my personal relationship with them. Personally, they wouldn't think of saying no if I asked them to participate." Granted this leader had little or no positional power but had a tremendous amount of personal power.

Don't underestimate your ability to influence others even when you lack positional power. I am starkly reminded of this with the recent death of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and Noble Peace Prize winner. During his long life, Mandela inspired and influenced countless individuals. These individuals collectively were able to end apartheid and unify a country. Mandela's life speaks to the power possessed by a powerless man.

Researchers who studied sources of power found two, positional and personal.* Position power is derived from the position you hold within the organization. It is delegated down the chain of command. Managers often rely on position power to get the job done.

Personal power is derived from the followers based on the leader's behavior. Charismatic leaders have lots of personal power. Friendship also gives personal power. The two sources of power are relatively independent, yet they often overlap. Today's effective leaders are relying less on positional power and more on personal power to influence others, and they are open to being influenced by followers with personal power.

Recognizing the type of power you have as a leader is helpful in determining the influence tactic you might consider. For those possessing little positional power, consider using:
  • Rational persuasion includes logical arguments with factual evidence to convince others to implement your recommended actions. A case must be made based on the other party's needs. Logical arguments work well with people whose behavior is more influenced by thinking than emotions.
  • Inspirational appeals connect to the values, hopes, fears, and goals of others. Positivity and optimism create a vision of how things will be when the objective is achieved. Think Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.
  • Personal appeals involve asking someone to do a favor out of friendship or loyalty. They are most likely to be used when asking for something that is not part of the target person's regular job responsibilities.

All three are often effective influencing tactics to gain commitment on a local community project or to help bring about peace and freedom to a nation.

*French, J. & Raven, B. (1959). Studies of Social Power. Institute for Social Research. Ann Arbor, MI: ISR Merchant, P. (2012) 5 Sources of Power in Organizations.

Toby Spanier, educator for Southwest Minnesota, works out of Extension's regional office in Marshall.

Any use of this post must include credit to Tobias Spanier. For questions, please contact Eriks Dunens, University of Minnesota Extension, at (612) 626-5943 or

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