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Instructor John Dixon

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Exercising Referent Power


Traditionally, anytime a fire officer must “speak to” a firefighter within their command, the communication is characterized as a form of negative discipline. Therefore, I propose an alternative to the “speaking to” and replacing the context towards a more positive perception of “speaking with!” Coaching and counseling are certain forms of progressive discipline which is to achieve a change in undesirable behavior. It can be argued that the root word of discipline is to disciple. Leading or teaching someone towards a favorable outcome in a mutually approved value and belief system. The return on the fire officer's investment for their time and energy in conducting a coaching or counseling exercise will certainly yield an increase in the desired behavior.

An issue that can be found within personnel management is, in fact, the title itself. It has often been said by multiple people in various contexts that “ you manage things and lead people!” In society today, we find ourselves living in a time when words really matter. What if we as leaders were to exemplify our words to mimic our actions? Therein lies the holy grail of leadership, the proverbial eight hundred pound Halligan that exists in every fire service organization which begs the question; why do you have power over me?

“One of the first works on the management of power was The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s masterpiece posthumously published in 1532” (Ward, 2015, p. 129). According to French and Raven (1959), two social psychologists published works describing forms of power. One of the five forms of power they identified is called referent power. This power further defined is when an individual who is the subordinate complies with suggestions for improvement due to an admiration for the superior who holds the given power over them. I would like to improve upon this thought process on power and offer a different perspective; the power that is given is not implied rather it is mutually shared.

“Using power wisely requires not only self-reflection and positive motivation of those you lead, but also understanding the resulting value that comes from these actions” (Sherman & Cohen, 2019, para. 8). When coaching someone, referent power is shared because the individual receiving the coaching is open to the information given by the coach. In this case, it’s a fire officer trying to improve upon a course of action for the future. This requires the action of forecasting behavior. It further requires a dual motivation that value will be tangible and easily noticed by both parties. If this value is not recognized, the next step must be to counsel the subordinate.

The action of counseling moves the pendulum from a shared power, a referent power, to more of legitimate power. An example would be, a form of hazing that occurred in the fire station which must be addressed immediately but the action does not rise to a formal disciplinary procedure. It may be a first-time offense or simply an out of context remark. Either way, this action mandates a change from a “speaking with” to a “speaking to!” It has often been said that leaders will accept what they allow. “When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable; if there are no consequences-that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must set standards” (Willink & Babin, 2015, p. 54).

Although the action of counseling is a form of legitimate power, the self-control and example of the superior officer must model the desired behavior asked of the subordinate. This is the delicate balance of power. The authority is given by the organization to conduct such an exercise but, the personal authority to listen and improve is given by the person receiving the counseling. If the fire officer is demonstrating a duplicitous leadership style, no form of coaching and counseling will prove to be effective.

Recommendations for fire service leaders vary from one guru to the next. The one singular action that reverberates above all others is our example. This is the most powerful leadership tool and certainly, the most widely coveted by followers. Having a positive example to follow makes ethical decision making much easier. This is because desired behavior has already been established and modeled. Even the best leaders around receive coaching from people who are in their inner circles who model behavior the leaders themselves are trying to emulate. Referent power is implied and shared mutually.
Motivation to continue on a specific leadership journey lies within the positive behavior and or outcomes that any individual seeks to achieve. This is where referent power ascends into legitimate power. The example of the leader is legitimized not only by people who may be on the receiving end of coaching/counseling, but the organization as a whole is legitimized by the behaviors of their leaders.

Management in the fire service must not be about people. We can manage the budget, apparatus, and standard operating guidelines. Leadership is a lifestyle learned through years of challenges and failures. These failures were turned into leadership successes through coaching and counseling which were paid forward to future generations of firefighters. This is the leadership continuum. Living the right example taught to us by those who have lived it before us. Their power was legitimized because of the referent power we shared with them.


French, John R.P. and Bertram Raven. Bases of Social Power. Studies in Social Power. Ed. Dorwin Cartwright. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,1959.

             Retrieved from

Sherman, R. O., & Cohn, T. M. (2019). Using leadership power wisely: Learn how to use power in the service of others. American Nurse Today.
             Retrieved from https://link-gale-<br< a="">>

Ward, M. J. (2015). Fire officer: Principles and practice (Enhanced 3rd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2018). Extreme ownership: how U.S. Navy SEALs lead and win. Sydney, N.S.W.: Macmillan.

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