Power and Influence: A Guide for Fire Officers


THE FOUNDATIONS OF EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP LIE in the ways a manager uses power to influence the behavior of other people. Research recognizes that power is essential to executive success, but that power should not represent the desire to control for the sake of personal satisfaction. The objective should be to influence and control others for the good of the group or organization as a whole.1

Power, the ability to influence other people and events, is a leader’s stock-in-trade, the way leaders extend their influence over others.2 Leaders rely on influence tactics to leverage their sources of power.3

Probably the two most often confused terms in management are “power” and “authority.”4 Authority is the right to command or give orders; power is the extent to which an individual is able to influence others so that they respond to orders or requests.

Leaders influence people to do things through the use of power and authority. Authority is delegated by the upper management or the organization; power is earned by leaders on the basis of their personalities, their activities, and the situations in which they operate.


Authority, also known as legitimate power, as noted above, is granted through the organizational hierarchy. All managers have legitimate power over their subordinates; however, the possession of legitimate power alone does not make a leader.5 To control successfully, managers must understand the control process and how organization members relate to it. Power is probably the most important human-related variable in the control process.6


The bases of power include the following (2):

  • Personal Power. Also called “referent power,” “charismatic power,” and “power of personality,” personal power refers to the leader’s ability to develop followers on the strength of his personality. The leader demonstrates a passionate belief in objectives that attract and hold the followers. The leader senses the needs of the people and promises to meet those needs. People tend to follow the leader because they want to do so; their emotions compel them to do so.
  • Legitimate Power. Also known as “position power” and “official power,” legitimate power arises from the culture of society-power is delegated legitimately by higher established authorities to others. It gives leaders the power to control resources and to reward and punish subordinates. People accept this type of power because they believe it is necessary to maintain order and discourage anarchy in a society. Also, there is social pressure from peers who accept it and expect others to accept it.
  • Expert Power. Also known as the “authority of knowledge,” this power comes from specialized learning and arises from a leader’s knowledge of and information about a complex situation. It is dependent on education, training, and experience and is an important type of power in a modern technological society. Employees tend to trust a leader who is a capable expert in a given situation.
  • Reward Power. This refers to the capacity to control and administer things valued by others. It comes from a leader’s ability to award pay raises, recommend subordinates for promotion or transfer, or make favorable work assignments. Rewards under a leader’s control are not limited to material items. They can include organizational recognition, inclusion in a social group, and even positive feedback for a job well done.
  • Coercive Power. This refers to the capacity to punish subordinates or to threaten to do so. Leaders with coercive power can threaten an employee’s job security; make punitive changes in the employee’s work schedule; and, in extreme cases, administer physical force. Coercive power uses fear as a motivator. This type of power can achieve short-term compliance but is likely to have an overall negative impact on the receiver.

Successful leaders must be able to acquire position power and personal power and use them appropriately. Centrality is a factor here: Managers must establish a broad network of interpersonal contacts and become involved in the important information flows within the network. Most importantly, managers should take good care of their peers and subordinates, on whom they depend to gain power. Position power in itself seldom is enough to achieve a sufficient level of influence. Good interpersonal skills are essential for developing personal power. (1)


Managers use influence behaviors when leveraging their power sources and influence tactics to get things done. (3) They include the following:

  • Leading by example. Leaders influence group members by serving as positive models of desirable behavior. Managers who lead by example demonstrate consistency between actions and words-a manager who expects punctuality should always be punctual, for example.
  • Leading by values. Leaders influence people by articulating and demonstrating values that guide others’ behavior. These values include mutual respect, trust, honesty, fairness, kindness, and doing good.
  • Assertiveness. Leaders should be forthright in their demands and clearly express what is desired, what is to be done, and their feelings concerning the matter.
  • Rationality. Effective leaders appeal to reason and logic. They point out the facts of an issue and the consequences of specific actions or inaction to the members.
  • Ingratiation. This tactic involves getting someone else to like you, often through the use of political skill. A typical ingratiating tactic would be to behave in a friendly manner just before making a demand. Effective managers consistently treat people well to get cooperation when it is needed.
  • Exchange.Managers offer to reciprocate if their demands are met. Leaders with limited referent, expert, and legitimate power are likely to use exchange and make bargains, especially with subordinates. The exchange tactic is similar to reward power; but in the exchange process, the manager goes out of the way to strike a bargain that pleases a team member.
  • Coalition formation. A coalition is a specific arrangement of parties working together to combine their power and exert influence on an individual or group. It is a means of gaining power and influence. The premise is that the more people you can get on your side, the better.
  • Joking and kidding. These methods are widely used to influence others on the job. Good-natured ribbing is especially effective when a straightforward statement might be interpreted as harsh criticism. (4)

Inspirational appeals, pressure, and personal appeals are also means of influencing others. Inspirational appeals are aimed at the target’s aspirations, desires, or beliefs. Pressure involves the persistent use of monitoring and reminding behaviors to ensure compliance with a request. This category also encompasses threats (not recommended, of course) or demands of various types. Personal appeals involve asking targets to comply with a request or to do a favor based on a relationship, such as friendship, and personal loyalty. (3)

Additional influence tactics include alliances, identification with a higher authority, power plays, control of information, and networking. Becoming identified with a higher authority or powerful figure is a popular path to political power in an organization. (2)


The following approaches can help leaders to gain cooperation (2):

  • Treat the other party as a potential ally.
  • Specify your objectives.
  • Learn about the other party’s needs, interests, and goals.
  • Inventory your own resources to identify something of value you can offer.
  • Assess your current relationships with the other person.
  • Decide what to ask for and what to offer.
  • Make exchanges that produce a gain for both parties.

Smart managers realize that their political power comes from the support of key individuals, the group around them, and their ability to work with people and social systems to gain their allegiance and support. Gaining and using power for self-fulfillment involve being alert to others’ need to save face, engaging in “horse trading,” making trade-offs, “mending fences,” developing ingenious compromises, and engaging in a variety of other related activities. (2)

For example, a fire chief planning to implement an EMS first responder program in 1993 met with significant resistance from department members. Comments such as “I was hired on to fight fire, not to be a doctor” were heard. Multiple meetings were held with department personnel on each shift, to explain the program, its goals and objectives, and the benefits to be derived from the program. The meetings served to alleviate the concerns of many of the members, to gain their support for the program, and to facilitate the process of implementing the program. The program implementation went smoothly, and it is still operating successfully today.


Multiple tactics can be used sequentially or in a “bundled” fashion. Often, tactics have to be adjusted according to how the target responds to the situation. In such cases, consultation, inspirational appeals, and rational persuasion may be effective. (3)

In one case, management in a state agency was considering whether to move an activity from one department to another. The agency director decided to hold a staff meeting to decide where the disputed activity would be located. The department manager who wanted to take over the activity prepared an elaborate and very convincing report that fully documented and supported moving the activity to her department. The manager of the department where the activity was located at that time visited committee members, “mending fences” and making trades to develop support for her department’s point of view. When the committee met two weeks later, the convincing logic of the written report was ignored, and the committee voted to retain the activity in its previous location. (2)


It is not difficult to get people to agree on a set of common organizational objectives and work together toward their accomplishment for awhile, but sustaining that trust and commitment is another issue, explains Chief (Ret.) Randy Bruegman, Clackamas County (OR) Fire District #1.7 “When such misunderstandings develop,” he says, “the level of trust determines whether you move immediately into collaboration, mutual fact finding, and explorations of solutions-or confrontation-because someone must be wrong, hiding something, lying, or just plain ignorant.” (7)

As already noted, trust must be earned; it can’t be negotiated or bought. Bruegman offers some suggestions for building trust: communicating openly and honestly without distorting the information; showing confidence in the abilities of your personnel and treating them as skilled, competent associates; being inclusive, listening and valuing what others have to say, even when you don’t agree; keeping your promises and commitments; and cooperating, collaborating, and looking for ways to help one another. (7)

Leaders whose own personal welfare is their greatest concern erode members’ trust. Other leader behaviors that diminish trust include sending mixed messages that prevent followers from knowing the leader’s true position on an issue, shirking responsibility for one’s actions, jumping to conclusions, reacting without first checking the facts, and making excuses or blaming others when things don’t work out. (7) Although blaming others might work in the short term, the long-term consequences could be disastrous, Bruegman warns.

Wise leaders act to build trust by controlling negative political behavior. Some ways to do this include confronting destructive political behaviors through appropriate sanctions, building an open culture that discourages political activities, developing clear and consistent expectations and procedures (uncertainty drives political behavior to a certain extent), and modeling appropriate behaviors. (7)

Overall, leaders who want to retain members’ cooperation, respect, and trust should strive always to be polite, respectful, and fair in their dealings with subordinates. They should depend on their management skills to reach their objectives. Relying on rewards, for example, often creates compliant, but not committed, followers. (7)


The use of power is necessary to run an organization. Using power and influence effectively is not easy or natural for many leaders, and some leaders insist on taking the easy way out.8 Understand how to use power properly, do not abuse it, learn how to effectively influence subordinates and key members of the organization, and avoid nefarious and counterproductive behaviors. To do less substantially limits your effectiveness as a fire officer.


1. Schermerhorn, John R. Management, 6th Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999; 263-266.

2. Newstrom, John W., Keith Davis. Organizational Behavior; Human Behavior at Work, 11th Edition. McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2002; 272-278.

3. Sweeney, Paul D., Dean B. McFarlin. Organizational Behavior; Solutions for Management. McGraw-Hill, 2002; 210-239.

4. DuBrin, Andrew J. Essentials of Management, 6th Edition, South-Western College Publishing, 2003; 289-290.

5. Griffin, Ricky W. Management, 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990; 476-480.

6. Certo, Samuel C. Modern Management, 7th Edition. Prentice Hall, 1997; 466-470.

7. Bruegman, Randy R. “A Matter of Trust.,” Fire Chief Magazine, August 2002, 40-46.

8. Carter, Harry R. “Reflections on the Road Less Traveled,” retrieved September 21, 2003, from http://www.harrycarter.com/2003/august_24,_2003,htm/.

WILLIAM GOSWICK, M.S., EFOP, retired from the Tulsa (OK) Fire Department in 1998, after 34 years of service. He had served as chief of research and development, training, and EMS. He has an associate in applied science degree in fire science from Tulsa Junior College, a B.A. degree in psychology from Langston (OK) University, and a M.S. degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, Arizona. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He has been the coordinator for the Fire and Emergency Services Program at Tulsa Community College since 1998 and has served as a reserve deputy for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office since 1993. He is an Oklahoma-state certified hazmat technician, an aircraft rescue firefighter, a fire service instructor, a code enforcement officer, and a law enforcement officer.

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