Betsy DeVos has recently been selected to serve as the next United States Secretary of Education. With this public governmental position, Ms. DeVos has the power to influence many people and much educational policy. However, Ms. DeVos’s selection and her first few weeks in this leadership position have come with a considerable amount of public dissatisfaction (Perez-Pena, 2017). Some of this public disapproval stems from comments she made during her Senate confirmation hearing that did not demonstrate an adequate knowledge of the policies and laws that govern the education department with which she is to lead (Perez-Pena, 2017). Her experience within the government and with public schools are both lacking and this only adds to the negative public opinion that is currently reflected in the national news (Perez-Pena, 2017). Although Ms. DeVos has demonstrated a few behaviors that have not been well received, she does have the resources available to be a good leader. But, to be effective leader, she needs to understand the different types of power available to her and how to effectively use these different types of power to influence others.
According to Hughes et al. (1993), “leaders with relatively high amounts of power can cause fairly substantial changes in subordinates’ attitudes and behaviors” (p. 108). Given the high level of power available and the potential to apply a considerable amount of influence, Ms. DeVos must be aware of her capabilities as a leader. In addition to the different levels of power, there are also five bases of power that should be considered when determining the appropriate approach to influencing others. Each of the five sources of power come with their own advantages and disadvantages (Hughes et al., 1993). But, an effective leader will understand these differences and select the appropriate source of power that will complement the given situation, providing the appropriate form of influence (Hughes et al., 1993). It is important to note that these different sources of power can be used by followers to influence leaders, just as leaders utilize them to influence their followers (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 107).
The five bases of power include; expert power, referent power, legitimate power, reward power and coercive power (Hughes et al., p.114). Expert power relates to the amount of knowledge and experience an individual has in relation to other individuals within a particular team, group, or organization (Hughes et al., p. 114). Ms. DeVos has publically demonstrated that her knowledge in the area of public education policy and law has not reached the expert level. This source of power would not be a useful resource for her to use to influence others. Nevertheless, expert power is something that can change over time. To develop the capability to use this source of power, Ms. DeVos would need to expand her knowledge and experience in the area of education policy and law.
The next source of power is the referent power, which is impacted by the degree of relationship between the leader and follower (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 114). A leader who is well liked, admired, or is respected can have a positive influence on others (Hughes et al., 1993, p.115). Quite often the level of influence is determined by the strength of relationship between the leader and their followers (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 115). In Ms. DeVos situation, her relationship with the common citizen of the United States can be considered weak. The common citizen cannot relate to Ms. DeVos, who is extremely wealthy and comes from a wealthy family (Perez-Pena, 2017). Individuals working in the public school system have taken offensive to some of the public comments she has made with regards to their performance (Perez-Pena, 2017).Her ideas and views on the public education system have separated many followers and their support of her as an education leader (Perez-Pena, 2017). To use referent power as a source of influence, Ms. DeVos would need to generate more support from the general public and build a better relationship with those in the public school system.
Legitimate power is another source of power used to influence the attitudes and behaviors of others (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 115). This source of power is determined by the person’s position within the organization (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 115). With legitimate power, the authority given to an individual in a particular position allows them the ability to influence through the use of requests and demands (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 115). However, having legitimate authority will not be enough to make a person a good leader (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 116). To be an effective leader, the use of requests and demands will have to be appropriately applied to the situation. Constant demands will not be an effective means to influence everyone in every situation. Ms. DeVos’ position as Secretary of Education gives her a high level of legitimate power. She has the ability to provide requests to policy makers, but the government system will require more than just a request to influence their actions.
According to Hughes et al. (1993), reward power is based on the concept that resources, when controlled appropriately, can influence others (p. 116). These influential rewards can come in many forms, such as bonuses, promotions, or something as simple as praise and recognition (Hughes et al., 1993, p.116). Quite often the effectiveness of the reward to influence others will be determined by the follower and the situation (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 117). With the public forum readily available to Ms. DeVos, she can use public praise to garner the support of a particular audience and influence their actions towards a specific goal. Her ability to reward through support of specific education policy and influence agenda by her legitimate authority can also be a means to influence the behaviors and attitudes of others. Reward power is something that Ms. DeVos can use to offset her deficiencies in other sources of power. However, the use of her substantial fortune to reward political parties, as she has done in past positions, may not be an appropriate use of reward power in her current position (Perez-Pena, 2017).
The final source of power that has the potential to influence others is the use of coercive power. With the use of coercive power, an individual can influence through the possibility of negative repercussions, punishments, or denial of rewards (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 119). Similar to reward power, the extent to which coercive power can be used is dictated by the followers and the situation (Hughes et al.,1993, p. 119). In her previous position as Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and major Republican donor, Ms. DeVos relied heavily on her reward and coercive power to influence other politicians (Perez-Pena, 2017). As noted by Perez-Pena (2017) of the New York Times, Ms. DeVos was well know for the fear she instilled within Michigan politicians because of her ability to influence legislation and persuade the removal of foes that did not support her ideals. Her personal financial support will not be as influential in her current position. However, there are other forms of coercive power that can be utilized by her. She can deny her support of education policies or remove resources available to those in the education system if her ideas and views are not supported. Albeit coercive power should be used cautiously, as too much reliance of this as a form of influence may demonstrate a desire for control that is not supported by our social standards (Hughes et al., 1993, p.119).
Each of the five sources of power provides a capacity to influence others in a different manner. Understanding the use of each power source will enable leaders to be effective in the application of influence. Ms.DeVos has struggled to effectively influence support in her first few weeks in her new position as Secretary of Education. However, if she can appropriately incorporate all the different sources of power available, as the situation and follower dictates, she can improve her effectiveness as a leader.
Hughes, R., et al. (1993). Power and Influence. Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. (pp. 107-131). Homewood, IL. Irwin.
Perez-Pena, R. (2017, February 23). Betsy DeVos is Publicly Polite, but a Political Fighter. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/us/politics/education-secretary-betsy-devos-donald-trump.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news