Leadership, Power, Politics, and Conflict in Organizations.

Classic research studies on leadership have set the stage for the theoretical development of leadership. Recently there is renewed research interest in the “Big Five” personality traits and effective leadership. To manage organizations today, where change has become rather a continuous factor, leaders need to be strategic and have the ability to take complex and consequential decisions (Greenberg, 2003). Due to the complex nature of today’s organizations, leaders need to have greater political will, expertise, and personal skills so that they are more flexible and innovative in approach (NDU, 2007). If the leader does not have political awareness and skill, there is likely to be bureaucratic infighting, conflicts at all levels, and destructive power struggles. These can seriously handicap an organization’s initiative, innovation, morale, and performance (Kotter 1985). In order to make organizations more innovative, the leader must be a person of influence. He should have the abilities to implement strategic changes in the face of formidable resistance, foster creativity amidst opposition, be resourceful and have support from top political power figures, avoid having enmity with people whose contributions are necessary from the organizational viewpoint, be an effective team builder and manage conflicts, avoid getting into destructive power struggles, avoid power misuses and power loss, and avoid bureaucratic power conflicts (NDU, 2007). In recent years, there is much focus on charismatic leadership and transformational leadership theories. According to the charismatic theory, charismatic leaders get extraordinary commitment and performance from followers. Transformational leaders are considered to be especially suited to today’s organizations, as they are characterized by charisma, inspiration, and intellectual and individualized stimulation (Luthans, 2005). Effective transformational leaders identify themselves as change agents, are courageous, believe in people, are value-driven, are lifelong learners, have the ability to deal with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, and are visionaries.

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Leadership is associated with authority and power. John Gardner states, “Power is the basic energy needed to initiate and sustain action or, to put it another way, the capacity to translate intention into realty and sustain it.” Similarly, Richard Nixon wrote, “The great leader needs… the capacity to achieve…. Power is the opportunity to build, to create, to nudge history in a different direction.” Power is the ability to influence events, people, and behaviors (NDU, 2007). John French and Bertram Raven have identified five classic types of power: reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert (French and Raven, 1959). In an organizational context, managers who have the power to reward people through pay increases, promotions, valuable information, favorable work assignments, etc are said to enjoy reward power (Luthans, 2005). Managers, in reality, may not have the rewards to dispense, but as long as their people think they have it, they do indeed have reward power. The person with coercive power has the ability to inflict punishment on another person or make threats. Managers exercise their coercive power by firing, demoting, or docking the pay of employees. Legitimate power stems from the internal values of the other persons that give the legitimate right to the agent to influence them. People acquire legitimate power through titles or positions in the family. Referent power comes from the desire on the part of the other persons to identify with the agent wielding power due to their personal characteristics or because they have desirable resources. Expert power is based on the extent to which others attribute knowledge and expertise to the power holder. However, the people must perceive the agent to be credible, trustworthy, and relevant before expert power is granted. Management experts argue that power at the strategic organization level is manifested and executed through three fundamental elements: consensus, cooperation, and culture (Luthans, 2007).

Power and politics are very closely related concepts. A popular view of organizational politics is how one can pragmatically get ahead in an organization. Alvin Toffler, the noted author of Future Shock, observed that companies are always engaged in internal political struggles, power struggles, infighting, and so on. That’s normal life” (Toffler, 1990). The classical organization theorists portrayed organizations as highly rational structures in which authority meticulously followed the chain of command and in which managers had legitimatized power. In the more realistic view of organizations, the importance of political aspects of power and strategic advantage comes to the forefront. Pfeffer notes: “Organizations, particularly large ones, are like governments in that they are fundamentally political entities. To understand them, one needs to understand organizational politics” A comprehensive definition of organizational politics is that “organizational politics consists of intentional acts of influence undertaken by individuals or groups to enhance or protect their self-interest when conflicting courses of action are possible” (Pfeffer, 1992). Walter Nord (1978) suggests four postulates of power in organizations that help focus on the political realities: organizations are composed of coalitions that compete with one another for resources, energy, and influence; various coalitions will seek to protect their interests and positions of influence; the unequal distribution of power itself has dehumanizing effects; and the exercise of power within organizations is one very crucial aspect of the exercise of power within the larger social system (Nord, 1978). However, politics differs from organization to organization. Organizational politics is today viewed positively as a cornerstone of organizational democracy.

Some specific political strategies are to maintain alliances with powerful people, embrace or demolish, divide and rule, manipulate classified information, make a quick showing, collect and use IOUs, avoid decisive engagement, attacking and blaming others, progress one step at a time, wait for a crisis, take counsel with caution and be aware of resource dependence (DuBrin, 1978). One thing about power and politics that is certain is that modern, complex organizations tend to create a climate that promotes power-seeking and political maneuvering. Microsoft learned the hard way that ingratiation political tactics may have been much more successful than simply trying to bully government regulators when antitrust law violations were being investigated (Luthans, 2005). Other new economy firms such as Cisco are learning from Microsoft’s mistakes: it makes sense to investigate and carefully implement the best political approach when seeing to deal with outside agencies and individuals who could alter or harm a firm’s inside operations and growth (Luthans, 2005). Thus, it is best to accept power and politics as a part of modern organizational life.

Conflict refers to the disagreement, presence of tension, and unstable condition between two or more interdependent parties. In the organizational context, the goal of conflict management is not to eliminate it but to manage it, because conflict is not always bad and has the potential to be an enhancing factor for group process. There can be three types of conflict. (Jehn, 1995): relationship conflict or interpersonal conflict; task conflict or conflict over what to do and process conflict or conflict over how to do it. Conflicts may be resolved by mediation or arbitration calling for third party involvement or they can be resolved using negotiation by the immediate parties. One study found the following profile of high-performing teams: low but increasing levels of process conflict, low levels of relationship conflict, with nearer project deadlines, and moderate levels of task conflict at the midpoint of group interaction (Jehn, 1995).

Sometimes, organizations suffer from conflicts due to the environment. Pondy (1967) suggested that a primary cause of conflict in organizations arises because of competition over scarce resources as different interested parties or organizational units attempted to allocate and control the resources. Dess and Beard (1984) defined three dimensions of environment that should be taken into account while assessing the degree of uncertainty: capacity, volatility, and complexity. Capacity refers to the abundance or scarcity of resources. Volatility refers to the degree of instability whereas the complexity of the environment refers to the differences and variability among environmental elements. Conflicts happen in environments characterized by scarce or shrinking resources, downsizing, competitive pressures, or high degrees of uncertainty. Such conflicts can be managed by strategic leaders who can anticipate problems of scarcity, react timely to volatility, and counter problems of complexity through the acquisition of information.


Dess, G. G. & Beard, D. W. (1984). Dimensions of organizational task environments. Administrative Science Quarterly. 29: 52-73.

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DuBrin, A. J. (1978). Human Relations. Reston Publishers. Reston, VA. 1978.

French, J. R.P. and Raven, B. (1959). “The Bases of Social Power”. Studies in Social Power. University of Michigan. Ann Arbor. 1959.

Greenberg, J. (2003) Organizational Behavior: The State of the Science. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Mahwah, NJ. 2003.

Jehn, K.A. (1995). “A multimethod examination of the benefits and detriments of intragroupconflict”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 40, pp. 256-82.

Kotter, J.P. (1985). Power and Influence: Beyond Formal Authority. New York: Free Press. 1985.

Luthans, F. (2005). Organizational Behavior. McGraw-Hill Publications. Tenth Edition. New York. 2005.

NDU (2007). Strategic Leadership and Decision Making. Web.

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Leadership, Power, Politics, and Conflict in Organizations.
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Nord, W. (1978). Dreams of Humanization and the Realities of Power. Academy of Management Review. 1978, pages 675-677.

Pfeffer, J. (1992). Understanding Power in Organizations. California Management Review. Winter 1992. p. 29.

Pondy, L. R. (1967). Organizational conflict: Concepts and models. Administrative Science Quarterly, 12, 296-320.

Toffler, A. (1990). “Powership – In the Workplace”. Personnel, 1990. Page 21.

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