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Sources of Power in Education

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Influence differs from authority in having a number of sources in the organization, in being embedded in the actual relationship between groups rather than located in an abstract legal source, and is not fixed but is variable and operates through bargaining, manipulation, exchange and so forth.



The posting below looks at the forms of power in education and the distinction between authority and influence. It is from Chapter 5, Political Models, in the book, Theories of Educational Leadership and Management, 4th edition, by  Tony Bush. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver's Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP.  ©Tony Bush 2011 All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Sources of Power in Education


Power may be regarded as the ability to determine the behavior of others or to decide the outcomes of conflict. Where there is disagreement, it is likely to be resolved according to the relative resources of power available to the participants.  

There are many sources of power, but in broad terms a distinction can be made between authority and influence. Authority is legitimate power which is vested in leaders within formal organizations. Authority involves a legal right to make decisions which may be supported by sanctions. 'Authorities are defined essentially as the people who are entitled to make binding decisions' (Bolman and Deal, 1991: 193). School heads and principals typically have substantial authority by virtue of their formal leadership positions.


Influence represents an ability to affect outcomes and depends on personal characteristics and expertise. Bacharach and Lawler (1980: 44) identify seven distinctions between authority and influence:

• Authority is the static, structural aspect of power in organizations; influence is the dynamic, tactical element.  

• Authority is the formal aspect of power; influence is the informal aspect.  

• Authority refers to the formally sanctioned right to make final decisions; influence is not sanctioned by the organization and is,

  therefore, not a matter of organizational rights.  

• Authority implies involuntary submission by subordinates; influence implies voluntary submission and does not necessarily entail a

  superior-subordinate relationship.  

• Authority flows downward, and it is unidirectional; influence is multidirectional and can flow upward, downward, or horizontally.

• The source of authority is solely structural; the source of influence may be personal characteristics, expertise, or opportunity.

• Authority is circumscribed, that is, the domain, scope, and legitimacy of the power are specifically and clearly delimited; influence is

  uncircumscribed, that is, its domain, scope, and legitimacy are typically ambiguous.

As we noted in Chapter 1, formal authority is often associated with management while influence is the key dimension of leadership. Heads and principals possess positional authority and have the formal power to impose their views. Leadership may arise in any part of the organization and relies on personal qualities and attributes.

Hoyle (1982) points to the ways in which these two aspects of power operate within educational institutions:

Influence differs from authority in having a number of sources in the organization, in being embedded in the actual relationship between groups rather than located in an abstract legal source, and is not fixed but is variable and operates through bargaining, manipulation, exchange and so forth. The head teacher in Britain has a high degree of authority; but [the] exercise of that authority is increasingly modified as teachers' sources of influence...increase and thus involves the head in a greater degree of exchange and bargaining behavior. (Ibid.:90)

There are six significant forms of power relevant to schools and colleges:

• Positional power. A major source of power in any organization is that accruing to individuals who have an official position in the institution. Formal positions confer authority on their holders, who have a recognized right to make decisions or to play a key role in the policy-making process. Handy (1993:128) says that positional power is 'legal' or 'legitimate' power. In schools, the head is regarded as the legitimate leader and possesses legal authority which is inevitably a key determinant of school policy. Other staff who are in senior posts may also exercise positional power. These may include deputy or associate principles, heads of department and pastoral leaders. Chairs of governing bodies or school boards may also exert positional power within self-managing schools and colleges. Cameron (2010) also points to the power exercised by external partners, for example the Secondary National Strategy (SNS) consultant in London: \"The SNS consultant has reinforced the influence or power that secondary school hierarchies have over teachers and departments (ibid.:356). In a hierarchy, the more highly placed individuals exert greater authority:

The first and most obvious source of power in an organization is formal authority, a form of legitimized power that is respected and acknowledged by those with whom one interacts...legitimacy is a form of social approval that is essential for stabilizing power relations. It arises when people recognize that a person has a right to rule some area of human life and that it is their duty to obey. (Morgan, 1997:172)

• Authority of expertise. In professional organizations there is significant reservoir of power available to those who possess appropriate expertise. Handy (1993: 130) says that 'expert power is the power that is vested in someone because of their acknowledged expertise...In a meritocratic tradition people do not resent being influenced by those whom they regard as the experts'. Schools and colleges employ many staff who have specialist knowledge of aspects of the curriculum. The music specialist, for example, is regarded as the expert in their field, and principals may be cautious in substituting their own judgments for those of their heads of department in curricular matters. In certain circumstances, there may be a conflict between formal leaders and experts but the outcome is by no means certain:

Expert power relates to the use of knowledge and expertise as a means of legitimizing what one wishes to do. 'The expert' often carries an aura of authority and power that can add considerable weight to a decision that rests in the balance. (Morgan, 1997: 181)

• Personal power. Individuals who are charismatic or possess verbal skills or certain other characteristics may be able to exercise personal power. Staff who are able to influence behavior or decisions by virtue of personal abilities or qualities are often thought to possess the attributes of charismatic leadership.  These personal skills are independent of the power accruing to individuals by virtue of their position in the organization. In school staff rooms, for example, there are often individuals who command the respect of colleagues because of their perceived wisdom or insight. These teachers may become alternative leaders whose views are sought on the key issues. 'Individuals with charisma, political skills, verbal facility, or the capacity to articulate vision are powerful by virtue of their personal characteristics, in addition to whatever other power they may have' (Bolman and Deal, 1991: 19).

• Control of rewards. Power is likely to be possessed to a significant degree by individuals who have control of rewards. They are inevitably perceived as powerful by those who value such returns. In education, rewards may include promotion, good references and allocation to favored classes or groups. Individuals who control or influence the allocation of these benefits may be able to determine the behavior of teachers who seek one or more rewards. Typically, the head or principal is the major arbiter of promotion and references, although advice may be sought from heads of departments or others who possess relevant knowledge or information. Classes may be allocated by heads of department. This form of power represents a means of control over aspiring teachers but may have little influence on those staff who choose to spurn these rewards. Control of rewards may be regarded as authority rather than influence where it emanates from the leader acting in an official capacity.

• Coercive power. The mirror image of the control of rewards may be coercive power. This implies the ability to enforce compliance with a request or requirement. Coercion is backed by the threat of sanctions. 'Coercive power rests on the ability to constrain, to block, to interfere, or to punish' (Bolman and Deal, 1991: 196).

• Heads and principals may exercise coercive power by threatening not to supply a good reference for external applications or warning about the prospects for internal promotion. In certain circumstances, coercion may be used in conjunction with the control of rewards to manipulate the behavior of others. This 'carrot and stick' combination may have a powerful double effect on staff and may be a latent factor in all schools and colleges. Wallace and Hall (1994: 33) question the legitimacy of such manipulative actions: 'We suggest that manipulative either where it is a conscious attempt, covertly, to influence events through means or ends which are not made explicit; or where it is illegitimate, whether overt or not.'

• Control of resources. Control of the distributions of resources may be an important source of power in educational institutions, particularly in self-managing school and colleges. Decisions about the allocation of resources are likely to be among the most significant aspects of policy process in such organizations. Resources include revenue and capital finance, but also human and material resources such as staff and equipment. Control of these resources may give power over those people who wish to acquire them. There is often competition between interest groups for additional resources and success or failure in acquiring extra finance, staff and other resources is an indicator of the relative power of individuals and groups:

Resource management is...a micropolitical process, providing an arena within which participants compete for the resources which will enable them to develop programs of activity which embody their values, further their interests and help to provide legitimation for the activities in which they are engaged. (Simkins, 1998: 110)

While these six forms of power might be regarded as the most significant, Bolman and Deal (1991), Handy (1993) and Morgan (1997) identify several other sources, including:

• physical power

  • developing alliances and networks

• access to and control of agendas

• control of meanings and symbols

• control of boundaries

• gender and the management of gender relations.

Consideration of all these sources of power leads to the conclusion that heads and principals possess substantial resources of authority and influence. They have the capacity to determine many institutional decisions and to affect the behavior of their colleagues. However, they do not have absolute power. Other leaders and staff also have power, arising principally from their personal qualities and expertise, although, Young and Brooks (2004) show that part-time teachers, for example, are often marginalized. Lay governors may also be powerful, particularly if they chair the governing board or one of its important committees. These other sources of power may act as a counterbalance to the head's positional authority and control of rewards.


Bolman, L. and Deal, T. (1991) Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cameron, D. (2010) 'Working with secondary school leaders in a large-scale reform in London: consultants' perspective of their role as agents of school change and improvement', Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 38(3): 341-59

Handy, C. (1993) Understanding Organizations, London: Penguin.

Hoyle, E. (1982) 'Micropolitics of educational organizations', Educational Management and Administration, 10(2): 87-98.

Morgan, G. (1997) Images of Organization, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wallace, M. and Hall, V. (1994) Inside the SMT. Teamwork in Secondary School Management, London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Young, B. and Brooks, M. (2004) 'Part-time politics: the micropolitical world of part-time teaching', Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 32(2): 129-48.