The Best 5 Examples of Referent Power for Project Managers

The Best 5 Examples of Referent Power

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If you want to get things done, you will need some sort of power. Simply put, power is the ability to direct other people’s efforts toward some common objective. If we are unable to channel everyone’s effort in the right direction, it is likely that we will not reach our intended destination. Managers, projects managers, and directors really need some power – and they have various sources from which to obtain it. Referent power is one of them, and in this guide, we will see what referent power is, and some examples of referent power.

What is Referent Power?

Referent power is one of the six sources of powers in project management. This framework of seven sources of power was originally developed by two scholars, French and Raven, and is now one of the most respected studies about leadership.

We need to start by understanding that any power you may hold is always contextual. In fact, the power is not in yourself, nor in the person you want to exercise power on. Instead, it is in the relationship between the two. The CEO of a company may exercise immense power over its employees, but when stopped for breaching a speed limit by a police officer, the police officer has more power over her in that context.

If we understand the contextuality, we can start to divide the seven sources of power into two main categories. Positional power is when the position you hold gives you some power, and here we find reward power, coercive power, and legitimate power. Instead, personal power is when who you are and more in general how people feel about you gives you some power. In this category, we find informational power, expert power, and referent power. Today, we will focus on referent power.

In short, referent power is the power you have because people see you as a reference for something else, bigger than yourself. For example, you may be placed on a project directly by the CEO, so people feel you have extreme power because they relate you to the CEO. Or, you might personify an idea such as better product quality and so on. There are countless examples of referent power, and today we will see the best 5 examples to give you an idea.

The Best 5 Examples of Referent Power

1. Someone appointed by the CEO in a lateral position

This is probably one of the examples of referent power that is easier to attain, even if it is one that may require some time to understand. I had experienced this power myself in a big project I was leading. Even if I was appointed by the CIO (and not the CEO), the same concept applies the same.

If you are appointed to the CEO to lead a cross-functional team, you will have significant referent power
The dark dot leads a cross-functional team, and he can influence across many levels in the organization.

If someone high in the organization puts you at the top of some organizational chart, that is not referent power. That is positional, legitimate power – you are put in a position that gives you the power. Anyone in that same spot will get the same amount of positional power, and you will have some organizational levers such as the ability to give rewards or punishment as well. No, no – that’s not referent power.

But now, imagine you are leading a cross-functional project where you have to coordinate many different teams, from many different parts of the organization. It can happen that the “first common managers” between two divisions or groups involved in the project is no one less than the CEO. Of course, the CEO cannot afford to oversee all the projects in an organization, nor she can delegate its own positional power to someone else.

Instead, the CEO could involve all the leaders for the divisions involved and convey to them the importance of the project. As she does that, she can then appoint someone to lead the implementation of the project, someone that is even quite low in the organization. That someone, generally the project manager, will have to coordinate the effort from its peer in different branches of the organization, or even the effort from people who, in other parts of the organization, rank higher than himself.

People will follow the indications of the project manager because they relate him to the CEO and the importance she conveyed about the project. The difference between referent and positional power, in this case, is that the project manager has no position to exert authority over its peer or superiors.

Among the examples of referent power, this is the easier to attain because it does not involve creating and evangelizing revolutionary ideas. Creating such ideas is a creative process, and so it is not easy to predict – being part of a cross-functional project is a much more manageable deal.

2. The Richest Man in the World

The examples of referent power can go beyond the organizational boundaries. In fact, as power is contextual, there are many contexts where power is exercised, and some people have some sort of power in almost any context.

If we are to follow Forbes, the richest man in the world is a different person almost every year, according to market fluctuations. However, for the same of our example one of the richest men in the world will do. Specifically, we can consider Bill Gates.

5 Examples of Referent Power: Bill Gates Has Referent Power
Bill Gates. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Bill Gates stepped down from the top ranks in Microsoft at the end of the ‘90s, and diversified its portfolio ever since – that is, it holds many different stocks, and not predominantly Microsoft any longer. We can say he left the business world in favor of the philanthropist world. Yet, his opinions can sway companies in one direction or another, or even governments.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill made important claims such as that the vaccine must be made available to everyone in the world. Bill Gates was not the chairman of any governmental board, or health institution, and he not even held any type of office in any nation whatsoever. Yet, his claims were able to steer the efforts of government bodies across the world.

Why all of that? Because most people regard Bill as an influential person, so that he has the power to direct the public opinion. People tend to have this highly opinion of Bill because it appears like a “down-to-earth billionaire”, someone anyone could aspire to be without feeling shame for doing so. Even if he has no formal power, it is what bills represent that gives him power, referent power.

As you can see, among our examples of referent powers this is certainly not easy to achieve. If you do happen to become a billionaire at some point, please remember about me and the important role this article played in your growth!

3. Late Steve Jobs

By now you should have an idea of the examples of referent power. Moving along the lines of Bill Gates, we can find another visionary of our times – Steve Jobs. Here, we are talking about Late Steve Jobs, I would say from the invention of the iPhone until he passed away.

5 Examples of Referent Power: Steve Jobs has referent power
Steve Jobs in 2008. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In fact, at the beginning of his career, Steve was an underdog, starting its career in a garage. You would not want to refer to someone working in a garage, so at that point he had no referent power. Even as he first launched Apple as a multimillion-dollar business, tech was booming, and Steve’s story was just a success like many others. No, we need to go forward in time to see real examples of referent power.

After his comeback to Apple, the successful launch of the iPod and the streamlining of the Mac product lineup, Steve was regarded as a marketing genius. More than that, he was regarded as a visionary, as someone who would settle for nothing less than perfection. Not only people inside Apple, but also consumers regarded Steve in that same way – and that is the legacy he has left us with.

As a result, people were willing to go the extra mile because for Steve because they could relate him to his biggest vision. It is the same reason why Apple users are willing to pay a premium for computers that competitor offers at a lower price point. One can argue that even the legacy of Steve Jobs has referent power over people now.

Unlike the other examples of referent power, in the case of Steve Jobs we see that it not only influences employees – but also customers. Isn’t that quite a power?

4. A Spiritual Leader

One of the biggest examples of referent power – if not the biggest – is the power that a spiritual leader exercises. Here we are not talking about prominent religious figures like the Pope, but about local spiritual leaders.

5 Examples of Refent Power: A spiritual leader has referent power
Spiritual leader of Afro-Brazilian religions. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

For his or her community, the spiritual leader acts as a mediator with God, and this means he can influence that community. Even by the fact that people go out to the church or mosque to listen to the leader’s speeches, and they do that willingly, it is a sort of influence. We can see it as a form of referent power because people can clearly refer their spiritual leader to their God.

Probably, among the other examples of referent powers you will find that this is the hardest to apply to the corporate word. Yet, you can think that mentorship can have a similar approach. If what you are is the representation of what someone else wish to become, then you will have some referent power over them.

5. A Change Leader

We can conclude our list of examples of referent power with another prominent figure, like Elon Musk. Unlike Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, Elon consistently makes bold statements and because of that is a more controversial figure.

As examples of referent power, both Elon Musk and Greta Thunberg hold referent power
Elon Musk and Greta Thunberg. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Someone who has a bold vision and that is not afraid to pursue it openly will have some referent power over people who share the same vision. That vision, or the way it is pursued, does not have to be controversial, but it must be bold. In fact, that person must place himself has a change leader, the person you will want to follow if you want some change to happen. He must be ahead of the pack, effectively directing the rest of the flock toward that change. People want to be guided, and he must be the guide.

In case of Elon Musk, he tries to place himself as a leader for many changes: green mobility, artificial intelligence, human-machine interaction just to name a few. These are big and daring changes, potentially revolutionary for humankind, and because of that they attract a lot of followers (and of haters). As you can imagine, placing yourself at the head of a similar change is not an easy task, and there is no clear guide on how to do it. However, the good news is that you do not have to lead such a big change, you can lead a smaller but impactful change.

To be a change leader, the change you lead does not have to be huge – but it must carry a significant impact on the people involved. Propose a new, better way to work that differs from the status quo, implement a new technology system in your company, propose a new chemistry lab for your school – change something to make people’s life better.

An important characteristic of change leaders is that they relentlessly pursue their change, regardless of what other people think. This is why, eventually, they gain traction. Furthermore, they do not have to be billionaires or prominent corporate CEOs – even normal people can start to lead big changes, think about Greta Thunberg.

Of all the examples of referent power, this is the more actionable one. That this, this power mainly depends on you, you just have to find a change you are passionate about and start leading it. Even better, you can develop this type of referent power in any environment – from big corporations to government, communities, or even families.

In a company or work team, an actionable change you can lead is the adoption of Agile project management. If you don’t know where to start, we have a guide for you, starting with Kanban.

Examples of Referent Power in Short

To recap, you have many ways to obtain referent power. We saw the 5 best examples of referent power, and for sure you can apply some of those in your context. Specifically, the best shot you have at gaining this power is being appointed on a cross-functional project by someone high in the organization or find a change that needs to be made and start to pursue it.

Start in this way, and you can eventually become a role model for someone, or even become the embodiment of a vision about the word – all of which are other sources of referent power you can draw upon.

In short, referent power is probably the most powerful and influential source of power. It is not a positional power, so it knows no boundary, and everyone can start building it. Remember that with great power comes great responsibility, so start now to build your power and put it to good use.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Alessandro Maggio



Project Management