The fundamental principles of leadership power dynamics in this article help you become a more effective leader.
More astute, more powerful and influential, and even more beloved.
This website has years of single-minded research on “rules and strategies of power”, with a dedicated community that tests and confirms these approaches.
In previous articles, you can learn more on general leadership:
In this article, we focus more deeply on the use of power and dominance for effective leadership.
So let’s dig deeper.
- Coercion & Dominance
- Acquire The Ability to Coerce
- Acquire the Ability to Act High-Dominance
- But Use Both Coercion and Dominance Sparingly and As Last Resort
- The Heavy Costs of Coercion
- The “Good” & “Bad” Types of Coercion
- Golden Rule: The Better The Leadership, The Less Coercion
- Coercion Rule of Thumb
- Be a High-Power/High-Warmth Leader
- Soft Coercion: Policing, Without Costs
- Dominance To Maintain Leadership
- Power Protecting As A Leader
- Power & Fawners
- Leadership Dark Side
Coercion & Dominance
First, let’s clarify what we mean.
Coercion is the ability to enforce your will against someone else’s will.
The “enforcement” ranges from killing & torturing, to threats of death & bodily harm, to firing in business, to “escorting someone out” from private property, to calling on external powers to deliver that coercion, etc. etc.
The coercion we’re referring to is leader-initiated, albeit the leader can also recruit someone else or mobilize the group to make his threat credible or to carry out the coercion itself.
Dominance refers to more forceful uses of power, ranging from yelling, bossing people around, publicly dressing someone down, etc. etc.
Both coercion and dominance can work and be effective.
And both are important tools of leadership.
Learn more on dominance:
To clarify the roles of dominance and coercion in effective leadership.
Acquire The Ability to Coerce
The use of coercion is different than the ability to coerce, which is important and useful for a leader to have.
Even as a value-adding leader, you’re always better off with at least the option of using more coercive forms of power.
They can be used to exclude or punish potential troublemakers from your team and, in more extreme cases, to push through some unpopular changes that you feel sure will eventually add value.
Acquire the Ability to Act High-Dominance
Same as above.
The use of dominance is different than the ability to be dominant, which is important and useful for a leader to have.
You’re generally better off with at least the ability to use more aggressive and dominant forms of power. You will rarely need it, but when you do, it’s important to show you can.
Coercion and dominance are on a scale
Few leaders who can be coercive are always non-coercive.
Especially if they remain in a leadership position over many years.
As a side note, I consider it suspicious when a leader brags about never using coercion.
I remember a company I was in where HR bragged of not firing people. One, it made a bad impression because sometimes you have to fire someone and there is nothing wrong with it.
And two, it turned out to be a huge lie and that company fired people in some of the most unethical ways -and it provided me with more motivation to start TPM-.
And no tyrant, no matter how tyrannical, always and only relies on coercion.
However, it’s possible to say of a leader whether he’s coercive or not depending on how much freedom he grants, and how often he relies on coercion
But Use Both Coercion and Dominance Sparingly and As Last Resort
One of the leader’s roles is to make sure the team stays healthy and performing.
Sometimes that means standing up, straightening out, or kicking out some members.
The leader can first start with feedback, guidance, and assertiveness.
But sometimes, he may also use dominance to demand better behavior.
And if none of that works, the ability to use force or coercion are important tools to keep the team healthy, and/or to achieve goals.
As a general rule, coercion is fair when used to ring-fence, disempower, or eliminate individuals or threats who harm the group or the mission.
Importantly, the use of both dominance and coercion are trickier if someone is harming or disempowering the leader only.
That requires a bit more strategizing to get it right (keep on reading).
The Heavy Costs of Coercion
As a general rule, coercion is a tool of last resort.
Coercion is costly for a leader, and there are important limitations:
- Coercion has a a smaller scope in the free world: there is a limit to how much force and threats you can use in a free world and a free economy where people are free to move and free to choose their groups and leaders (on the other hand though, when the “switching costs” to change group or leaders are very high, the scope for coercion is also higher)
- Coercion is less effective with high-value, high-power individuals, because high-value folks tend to have plenty of personal power and plenty of options -and they usually don’t like being coerced and forced-. Conversely, coercion works better with low-value and low-power individuals. And generally speaking, if you aim high, you want fewer low-value and low-power individuals
- Coercion is very costly
Let’s dig deeper into the costs of coercion.
In the next lessons, we’ll dig deeper into the psychology of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
For now, suffice to say that coercion is more in line with extrinsic motivation (avoiding harm and loss).
And as psychologist Haslam explains, external incentives require you to spend resources in overseeing people, and it erodes goodwill and social capital.
This is the opposite of what happens with value-adding leadership and intrinsic motivation.
Haslam explains with a chart similar to this one:
We will learn more about these dynamics in the next lessons.
As a good summary of this paragraph, I quote Haslam:
As Machiavelli observed, mercenaries make bad followers.
So do slaves.
The naked use of power is neither a badge nor a secret of a leader’s influence.
The “Good” & “Bad” Types of Coercion
Not all uses of coercion erode power, though.
In simple terms, we can differentiate between two types of coercion:
- Called-for coercion: when coercion (or dominance) serves to defend or enhance a member, several members, the group as a whole, or the mission
- Uncalled-for coercion: the worst type of coercion is coercion that is used without a goal. Or with the only goal being for the leader’s benefit, and against the interest of the group or mission
It’s the uncalled-for coercion that destroys social capital.
And it destroys your trust and credibility as a leader.
But when coercion and dominance are called for, and you do act more dominantly and coercively, that can be very value-adding and can often strengthen your leadership.
People look at you and think “we have a strong leader who keeps our community safe and helps reach our goals”.
However, keep in mind that the cases for coercion and dominance are rare with good leadership.
In-between “called for” and “uncalled for” there is some grey area that requires more tact and strategy (keep on reading).
Golden Rule: The Better The Leadership, The Less Coercion
As a general rule:
The more influence, respect, and social capital you develop as a leader, the less hard coercion you need.
This is one of the reasons why coercion is generally associated with poor leadership.
Because great leaders have little need for coercion.
And this is why “less forceful” policing strategies and techniques are so helpful to the smart leader (see next paragraph on “Soft Coercion”).
Worst of all: uncalled-for coercion against value-adding members
As Matthew sharply points out, the most damaging and costly coercion is against the most value-adding and the most respected members of the team.
Coercion and over-dominance against the most value-adding members of the team sub-communicates that the leader does not reward or respect members who add value.
Who does he reward and respect, then? People will naturally start thinking the leader only rewards fawners and weaker members who make him feel stronger.
Thus, coercion, over-dominance, and getting rid of the most value-adding, higher-quality members is a major warning sign of toxic leadership. A leader who is into personal power, rather than goal achievement and team well-being.
We will learn more in the next lesson on management.
Coercion Rule of Thumb
Alright, you’ve read until now.
What if you’re still unsure on when to use coercion, or not?
Here is a good rule of thumb for you:
It’s safe to use coercion when the highest-status, most value-adding members of your group would approve of it.
As a matter of fact, you might want to structure your group, unit, or business in a way that the most value-adding members do have a say on important internal-affair resolutions.
Yes, that might limit your power as an individual
But it will make your group much stronger and resilient, as well as far more likely to prosper and achieve goals.
Be a High-Power/High-Warmth Leader
Make sure people know the full extent of your power, including dominance and coercive power, together with your unwillingness to use it.
If you have the ability to dominate or coerce, it’s good for people to know about it.
Knowledge of your more coercive forms of power often decreases the likelihood you’ll ever need to use them.
As Jordan Peterson says, “if you can bite, you often don’t have to”.
BUT be EXTREMELY careful with displaying your coercive power.
It can come across as a (veiled) threat, or like you relish using coercion. And it can stifle participation as people shift from contributing, to fearing repercussions.
So either have someone else show the consequences of poor behavior, or make sure that you also communicate that “you truly don’t wanna bite”.
And that makes you a more beloved leader as well.
This is the “power with warmth” principle applied to leadership.
If you prefer a more democratic style of leadership, you can even downplay your coercive power, or even share that power with some of the best members of your team.
For example, you can share coercive power and various degrees of punishments with a council that assembles to decide on disciplinary actions.
Soft Coercion: Policing, Without Costs
“Soft coercion” tools are advanced tools of leadership.
They are extremely important because, as we’ve seen, coercion can be very costly.
When you go coercive against anyone who has fair demands or criticism, you turn “ugly” in the eyes of many -and for good reasons-.
Many revolutions started when a king or president used coercion to cling to power. The leader turned “ugly” in the eyes of many and that only emboldened and strengthened people’s will to overthrow him.
And many monarchies saved themselves when they dialogued instead of coercing. The leader’s dialoguing more positively framed the leader, making a more violent revolution either unneeded, or too costly compared to the benefits of dialogue.
That being said, coercion can also be risky when it’s called for.
To mare a comparison for leader’s coercion, think of violence, yelling, or raging for you as an individual.
You may only consider escalation for self-defense or really important matters. But when people see you with a black eye, in the middle of a scrap, or losing your patience with some customer rep, they see your behavior, but not always and necessarily consider the whole context.
Behave over-aggressively a bit too often, even if it was called for, and you may start getting a reputation for being out of control.
This is where “soft coercion” can come in handy for the smart leader.
The smart leader can apply strong pressure to reach goals, but without ever going full-coercion and without ever running the risk of “turning ugly”.
Some tools of soft-coercion include:
- Low-warmth (especially if lower warmth is compared to how you treat others or how you generally behave)
- Passive-aggression (it sends the message of “persona non-grata” to the leader and the target loses a lot of status in the group)
- Public disagreement or criticism (especially if on a continuous basis)
- Direct disagreement (especially if the leader often uses a more indirect tone or more “philosopher’s frames”)
- Recruiting the group to support the leader in a disagreement or to attack/ostracize a specific individual
But be careful with the last one.
It’s usually best not to call anyone in your support as that comes across as sneaky and weak. And very un-eagle-like.
Think of support instead as a bonus for your good leadership, and as part of a virtuous circle. Be a great leader, and people will help you with the policing without you having to draw the guns.
Examples: TPM Forum
In an online forum such as TPM’s forum, “coercion” corresponds to:
- Administrator editing or deleting messages
- Administrator banning users
At the time of writing, except for spammers, this website’s forum has never banned anyone and never edited any message (to be precise, some messages have been edited to remove personally identifiable information and/or to use more appropriate titles, but that’s a different use case).
Because I care to keep the TPM’s forum as a place of free expression and free-flowing, honest, and raw feedback.
And the more you want to maintain a positive community of empowered free-thinkers, the more you need to be careful with hard coercion.
Empowered free thinkers don’t like coercion -and rightly so, and luckily so. And I count myself among them-.
That doesn’t mean of course “never, ever go for hard-coercion”.
But it does mean you should be very careful with hard coercion, and only leave it for extreme and “called-for” cases.
But then, how do you deal with less obvious cases of value-taking?
And how do you deal with cases of value-loss that only involve you as the leader, and nobody else?
That’s where softer forms of coercion enter the picture.
The most difficult cases are the grey areas and the cases where the value-loss are not to the community, but to you personally.
And, in the case of TPM’s forum, when the loss is for the business/products only (in truth, if TPM’s business suffers, so might suffer the learning community, but it’s a second-order consequence and far less obvious and direct).
Dealing With Leader’s Personal Disempowerment
See Power University.
Defending Business Interests Without Coercion
See Power University.
Dominance To Maintain Leadership
Remember the introduction to social power dynamics?
We saw that the effects of any behavior is very different depending on who does it.
Originally, we used “tasking” as an example of a potentially disempowering behavior.
Let’s see an example of “tasking” again, and how it differently impacts you as a manager depending on who does it:
It can be heavily disempowering for a boss to have his report curtly task him because it diminishes his authority as a boss.
It diminishes the boss’s authority because a report that is disrespectful towards a leader sub-communicates that the leader doesn’t have respect from his team.
Let that happen several times, or from several reports, and things look bad for the leader.
That sub-communicates that the boss might not have the power to task and lead the team. And when you don’t have the influence and power to task and lead the team, you’re not a leader anymore.
That’s not only disempowering for you as the leader, but potentially also for the team.
A good team needs a leader. A leader who has the team’s respect -or, at least, who can demand that respect-.
Every time I’ve seen teams not respecting the boss, or even turning against the boss, there was little team to speak of.
That means that, as a leader, you must take disempowering behavior from anyone in your team as an orange or red-level power move.
Any disempowering behavior from a report, in a way, is a challenge to your leadership.
In this video there are several examples of Putin re-empowering himself against disempowering reports.
He re-empowers himself by “putting them back in their place”:
Putin: Why are the increases so steep? We have curbed monopolies in this area…
Minister: As we have seen in practice (one-up, smart-alec approach), there is no link between the regulations of prices, and what citizens pay (refuses to give an answer, frames Putin as clueless, asking stupid questions)
Putin: What on earth are you going on about? Why are you telling me stories, the citizens aren’t interested in this (= bring me results, or at least some logically-sounding reason that respect my power). If there isn’t a link, then there should be a link (rejects the minister’s frame, imposes his own frame. Super dominant, it’s like saying “even if that is the case, find a way, change reality for me”) Are you crazy or what
If you think this was “too much” of Putin, maybe you haven’t yet internalized some of the basic concepts of power dynamics.
Or, at least, not yet the power dynamics of leadership. If so, no biggies, leadership might be the most challenging aspect of people’s skills to master.
And to clarify those dynamics:
Putin had to act dominantly -and, at times, aggressively-.
In a way, the minister forced him to.
Letting a report get fresh with him -and on a televised encounter- would have undermined him not just personally, but as a leader.
As a leader capable of leading.
So he was forced to put him back to his place to protect his personal power and authority, but also his ability to affect positive change for the country.
In many ways, that wasn’t just personal push-back, that was eagle behavior.
If you don’t re-empower yourself when you’re supposed to be the higher authority, people might start doubting if you even have what it takes to lead.
Note: defending one’s power VS over-reacting
Higher dominance to protect your leader’s rank is necessary within your team.
Such as, when you’re being disempowered by those who are supposed to report to you and/or execute your task.
That doesn’t mean you’re going to escalate and a pick a fight with just about anyone who publicly disagrees with you. That would only be a major display of thin skin.
If the difference is not clear, read here.
Power Protecting As A Leader
Remember the concept of power protecting?
Power protecting might seem less necessary for a leader.
But it’s equally important.
Especially because many leaders aren’t even aware of losing power when they are over-dominant and when they don’t power-protect.
Some leaders think: I got the power and the rank, so people should just obey.
Well, theoretically, if you do have the rank or power, you indeed also have the ability to be dominant and curt when assigning tasks.
The issue with that is that being over-dominant is power-taking. And power-taking equals value-taking, and that destroys social capital.
How damaging it is, depends a lot on personality.
Some personalities think “he’s the boss, he can do that”.
But many other personalities demand, expect or appreciate power-protection.
Power-protecting matters the most for type A, “drives”, and high-power folks. But also for generally sensitive people. And, most often, the high-power folks are also the top-performers.
So if you want to keep top-performers, it’s a good idea to power-protect, even as a leader.
Example: The Disempowering Leader Who Lost My Added Value
See Power University.
Note: Power Protecting Requires A Strong Reputation
Power-protecting as a boss works great.
However, the boss must first make sure he at least has people’s respect.
Power-protecting when people do not respect you can make you come across as even weaker.
People will think you’re power-protecting because you don’t have the attitude, skills, or power to be more direct and dominant.
Instead, power-protecting when people see you as a strong leader and an individual to learn from and look up to, then you become a beloved, magnanimous leader.
As a general rule: a weak leader who power-protects seems even weaker. A strong leader who power-protects is an admired and beloved leader.
As Stef once said:
Poweful nice guys we called those magnanimous-Stef
Power & Fawners
As a general rule:
The more power you obtain with your leadership, the more distortions around you you create.
Think of it like the electromagnetic charge we mentioned in a previous lesson.
Those “power electromagnetic waves” tend to distort the reality you operate in.
The more power you have, the more you tend to attract people who want something from you, and the more you tend to attract (fake)warm and friendly behavior -we’ll call it “fawning” from now on-.
Fawning can happen because people want something from you or need you, of course.
But some form of fawning happens from almost anyone. Almost everyone is genetically programmed to be obsequious and friendly towards power.
So even normal people who theoretically might have little to gain or lose from you, they might still end up fawners.
Some issues to be aware of with fawning:
Fawners can distort and hide the truth
People are loath to bring leaders bad news.
So they either embellish the bad news, outright hide them, or exaggerate the good news.
The opposite is also true, depending on what the manipulator seeks.
For example, some people will come to you exaggerating their problems in the hope of handouts, in the hope of getting more money and responsibility to fix the problem, or simply to get more of your time and attention.
Either way, the main point is the same: the information you get as a leader is often distorted.
- Vet the people around you
- Rely on more objective measures,
- Tend to prefer people who were close to you before you acquired power
- Generally distrust those who are always too upbeat, and those who are always too negative
- Develop a reputation for wanting the truth
- Promote a culture where truth-sayers are rewarded and liars are punished
We all have blind spots, but leaders tend to have even more.
You’ll get lots of love from the people around you.
But that “love” is a lot based on the power you have, not necessarily on the quality of your character and the value you’re delivering.
That distortion can not only alter reality, but also mask potential problems or threats.
Some leaders are blindsided by the speed of changes in their fortune because they weren’t even seeing the warning signs.
The Love / Hate Danger
If you’re a famous leader, then you’ll get plenty of flack from media and random haters.
But that’s also distorted reality.
And there is an added danger with the polarization of love/hate. You get lots of love from those who know you personally, and the hate you get is mostly from distant people.
It can create a false belief of being the best person ever, who’s being unfairly targeted and victimized by (far away) enemies.
You lose sight of the often larger middle ground of shades of grey, people who neither fawn for you, nor hate you.
Some leaders can become paranoid, dividing the world into “allies and “enemies”.
That sidetrack them from their job of leading and adding value, and they spend most of their time in war-mode.
That’s what happened to Trump, and from what I gathered through some books, to Richard Nixon as well.
- Be aware and remind yourself of the fawning effect, and that will already help you to better assess the situation
- Assess and rate people around you for how likely they are to be fawners. As we mentioned almost everyone changes behavior around power, but some do it more than ohters
- Generally discount compliments, it’s a good idea in general (+ antifragile ego), and don’t even take into account the fawners’ compliments and brown-nosing.
Fawners can be enemies hiding behind the smiles
Fawning can not not only mask issues within your team and the external world, but it can be wholly fake itself.
The fawners may not be friends or allies at all.
They might be simply pursuing their interests, and be ready to turn you over as soon as you start losing power and support.
As a matter of fact, fawners can accelerate your downfall. The fake friends stay with you until they believe you can win. But they withdraw their support as soon as they believe you are going to lose. Potentially, they can also join the opposing side.
Call this tendency the “power tipping point”
The power tipping point can turn the tide against you far more quickly than you could possibly anticipate.
As an example, see Trump.
The more it was becoming obvious he was losing, the more quickly he lost power and influence.
First Twitter started marking his Tweets. Then they outright deleted his account. And then he struggled to get any media time.
And of course, some friends may be enemies in disguise.
They just pretended to be friends while plotting and/or taking action against you behind your back.
Trump again as an example:
Trump: Zuckerberg used to come to the White House to kiss my ass (…) then you see what they do about me and about Republicans (…) but that’s the way the world works
Trump says that Zuckerberg was a fawner and fake friend. And while he played the fake friend, he was also promoting Democrat-leaning content on his platform, and censoring or suppressing Republican-leaning content.
First off, a warning:
Don’t turn over-cynical.
That would make a poor leader, as well as polluting your own mind and mood.
That being said:
- Don’t count on the support and allegiance of after-power friends, if it’s going to be there, nice. But don’t depend on it
- See the track record, pre-power friends and allies tend to be safer
- Look at people’s character. Idealists and mission-oriented people tend to be safer because they’re more focused on the ideal or on the goal. Conversely, people who are after personal success tend to sell to the highest bidder and easily switch allegiances.
Leadership Dark Side
So far we assumed value-adding leadership.
However, there’s the side of the coin to leadership, the “followers” power dynamics, for which leadership can be “less value adding”, or potentially value-taking.
And while that concerns a lot more taker, assholes, and POSes of the world, remember that the world is a lot more shades of grey than black and whites.
Meaning: even “good” leaders can sometimes stand in the way of reaching your maximum potential.
Conflicts of Interest
There are many conflicts of interest between leaders and followers, including:
- Leaders gain with disempowered individuals while you lose: leaders who seek great achievement need high-value people. However, most groups aren’t after world-class goals. So most leaders gain if their members are not fully empowered, since empowered individuals don’t want anyone to “lead” them -or, at least, don’t want most average leaders-
- Leaders gain with power-unaware individuals, while you gain with power-awareness: power-unaware folks allow for more manipulation and grant more freedom and power to the leader
- Leaders gain hiding the true benefits of leadership and you lose with the costs of following
- Leaders gain when you give your all to him, the group, or the cause, but you may gain being more selfish
Conflicts of interest lead to much manipulation.
And the more extreme the environment, the group, or the risks, the bigger and riskier the manipulation.
Also see a case study:
- Business manipulation, including managers and founders manipulation
- Great leadership is great manipulation
This article provided an overview of leadership power dynamics.
We approached leadership assuming:
- Value-adding leaders
- Leaders that people are intrinsically motivated to follow
- Leaders leading people who tend to be high-value and high-quality
Leadership power dynamics for a tyrant or a leader who wants to maximize self-interest would look very different and lead to very different principles.
But that wouldn’t be the eagle’s approach to leadership.