**WARNING: Major Spoilers for Black Panther**
Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Black Panther delivers a ton of action, powerful performances, visually stunning sceneries and costumes, and (most importantly) an intriguing look at a leader in T’Challa, aka Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman). T’Challa has recently dealt with the death of his father, and consequently has taken over as the leader of the most advanced country in the world, the fictional Wakanda (Feige & Coogler, 2018). T’Challa presents himself as a powerful leader that faces many challenges as he begins his kingship of Wakanda. While this character leadership and style could be examined from many different angles, I am going to specifically discuss the five bases of power and how they are demonstrated in T’Challa.
The taxonomy of social power identifies five primary sources of power that leaders can use to influence other people: expert power, referent power, legitimate power, reward power, and coercive power (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012). A leader uses one or some combination of these bases in order to inspire and direct his or her followers. There may be more bases of power, but these five are the most common and can be useful when analyzing the source of a leader’s influence (French, Raven, & Cartwright, 1959). In Black Panther, T’Challa demonstrates all five of these bases of power (to varying degrees).
As the name implies, this base of power uses the expertise of the leader in order to influence others. This expertise can be in the form of knowledge, skill, or experience (Hughes, et al., 1993). As the new king of Wakanda, T’Challa does not have any particularly special experience or knowledge to inspire his people. In fact, his sister, Shuri, is far more knowledgeable regarding the technology and tools he uses (Feige & Coogler, 2018). However, T’Challa is able to demonstrate his expert power in an important and impactful way: by besting all challengers in one-on-one combat. This ritual combat demonstrates to Wakanda that T’Challa’s skill and expertise as a fighter (even without his Black Panther abilities) makes him worthy to be their king. While this ritual shows a limited expertise, it is a powerful demonstration that cements T’Challa’s right to the throne.
Referent power involves the relationship a leader has between themselves and their followers (Hughes, et al., 2012). The stronger the relationships, the stronger the influence. Specifically, this relationship is in regardless to “oneness”, or being a part of the same team as the leader (French, et al., 1959). As depicted in Black Panther, Wakanda is a very close nation that has strong ties to its citizens. The country has been isolated from the rest of the world for centuries and this created a fierce loyalty among its inhabitants. This is most demonstrated in T’Challa’s relationship with an ex-lover, the spy Nakia. Due to loyalty to Wakanda (and T’Challa personally), Nakia follows T’Challa into many dangerous missions (Feige & Coogler, 2018). However, this base of power is also an area of weakness for the new king. He is betrayed by his friend, W’Kabi, due to a perceived lack of action. A higher level of referent power might have increased W’Kabi’s loyalty and prevented him from making some of his ill-fated decisions.
Legitimate power is probably T’Challa’s strongest base of power. This power source focuses on the formal position that an individual holds within an organization (Hughes, et al., 2018). This authority is assigned, either by a third-party or by a system (French, et al., 1959). In T’Challa’s case, he is made king by being the son of the former king. As with other monarch systems of government, this authority is largely unquestioned. While T’Challa is challenged to ritual combat as an attempt to usurp his power, the movie states that this kind of challenge is not common or normal (Feige & Coogler, 2018). Following the royal bloodline, T’Challa is named king after the death of his father as laid out in the customs of Wakanda. This is clearly shown in the way that his special, all-female guard (the Dora Milaje) obey and protect him as the king of Wakanda without question. Ironically, this base of power leads to T’Challa’s downfall as the villain, Killmonger, is able to demonstrate a similar legitimate claim to the throne and is allowed to contest T’Challa’s position. This situation demonstrates that while legitimate power is very influential, it is dependent on authority given by an outside source and the actions and decisions of the leader can be inconsequential.
Reward Power/Coercive Power
I am going to address these final two bases of power jointly because they are very similar (though opposites). Reward power involves a leader’s ability to provide followers with a desired outcome (award, bonus, raise, etc.); coercive power involves a leader’s ability to provide followers with an undesired outcome (penalty, punishment, firing, etc.) (Hughes, et al., 2012). These bases of power are not demonstrated very overtly in Black Panther. Though it can be assumed that T’Challa, as the king, can distribute rewards and punishments as he sees fit to the citizens of Wakanda, this never explicitly shown. From what we do see of T’Challa, he appears to not be a coercive leader. This is important because coercive leadership, while sometime effective, is not desirable or should not be replicated by other leaders (Northouse, 2016).
T’Challa’s leadership as demonstrated in Black Panther is influential and moral. His actions in the film provide a prime example of a great leader. Though he faces many obstacles throughout the course of the story, his ability to impact others around him seems to be his greatest asset and the primary reason for his success. An analysis of his leadership from the perspective of the five bases of power clearly demonstrates this fact.
Feige, K. (Producer), & Coogler, R. K. (Director). (2018). Black Panther [Motion Picture]. United States: Marvel Studios.
French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7, 311-320.
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.