Executive Power vs. Expert Influence

Though the heightened attention to leadership is a late twentieth and early twenty-first century phenomenon, in the mid twentieth century were some ground-breaking studies on leadership, particularly in small groups.  One was an article first published in 1959, by John R. P. French, Jr. and Bertram Raven, titled, “The Bases of Social Power.”

The field of leadership has always been plagued by problems of semantics, the article by French and Raven being no exception. Though they take great pains to define their terms, to our ears their definitions sound quaint if not arcane. While initially they focus on two wellsprings of leadership, power and influence, as the title of their piece suggests they settle on “power” as their primary explicator for how some people (leaders) get another people (followers) to do what they, the former, want and intend.   

Though French and Raven wrote there are “undoubtedly many possible bases of power,” they focused on five they found “especially common and important.” Some of these are related to each other, for example the power to reward and to punish usually resides in the same person. Others of these are entirely unrelated, for example legitimate power and expert power might, or they might not, be lodged in one individual. The five bases of power are:

  1. reward power – power derived from the leaders’ ability to reward followers
  2. coercive power – power derived from the fear that failure to follow will result in punishment
  3. legitimate power – power derived from the legitimization of the leader’s position (we usually follow those whose status is higher than ours)
  4. referent power – power derived from the close connection or identification by followers with their leaders
  5. expert power – power derived from some people being perceived to know more, much more, than others     

I, in contrast to French and Raven, have concluded that leaders actually have three different wellsprings from which they can draw: power, authority, and influence. They relate to their five bases of power, but they are not the same. In my 2012 book The End of Leadership, I made these distinctions – with A the leader and B the follower: “Power is defined here as A’s capacity to get B to do whatever A wants, whatever B’s preferences, if necessary, by force. Authority is A’s capacity to get B to do whatever A wants, based on A’s position, status, or rank. And influence is as it sounds: A’s capacity to persuade B to go along with what A wants and intends, of B’s own volition.”

Like many if not most academic fine points, the distinctions to which I refer seem mostly to be just that, academic fine points. But every now and then they play out in the real world in ways that are of paramount importance. In The End of Leadership I argue, as does Mois Naim in his subsequent The End of Power, and Tom Nichols in his subsequent The Death of Expertise, that though what French and Raven called “expert power” is not dead, in the last few decades it has been seriously diminished. More specifically, we tend now not particularly to respect those who know more than do we. Similarly, we tend now not especially to be swayed by those who know more than do we. We incline instead to ignore or even disparage the experts, often in favor of our peers, if not downright to defy them.        

None has characterized – epitomized – this proclivity more blatantly than President Donald Trump. Not for him expert power – or influence. To the contrary: he has reveled throughout his time in office in declaring as loudly as recurrently that he knows more than does anyone else, no matter the endeavor or field of expertise.  The current pandemic has been no exception. Until now.

The conflict between what I call executive power and expert influence has played out for weeks on America’s national stage, specifically between two men: the big, brawling, bullying president, Donald Trump, and the small, smart, sensible doctor and director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci. Though Fauci has been well known among those in the know for decades – in the 1980s he played a pivotal in the AIDS crisis – he became virtually a household name only in the last month. As a result of his many media appearances, during which he relentlessly beats the drum for treating the corona virus with the deadly earnestness, Americans have become all-too familiar with his face, his name, and his demonstrable expertise. Repeatedly Fauci has told the American president and the American people what they did not want to hear.

At every turn Trump fought Fauci’s sounding the alarm about COVID 19. Which led some to predict that Fauci would at any moment be fired. And others to fear that the vitriolic right would one day do him real damage. (A post on Twitter and Facebook claiming that Fauci was part of a secret anti-Trump cabal reportedly reached some 1.5 million people.) But, yesterday, finally, the tide turned. Yesterday, finally, Trump backed down. He actually reversed himself – as much as admitting that he was wrong and Fauci was right. That Fauci was right to insist that for weeks ahead Americans must continue to follow the by now familiar guidelines, including not yet going out more than necessary and not yet returning to work.   

For weeks Fauci and other public health officials have argued that Trump should not relax the guidelines too soon – only to be stonewalled by the president, who in spite of their cautions recently said that by Easter he wanted America’s churches to be “packed.” Why then did Trump finally give in? Why then did executive power finally succumb to expert influence?

Here some reasons:

  • Present information became overwhelmingly convincing. So much data indicating so many Americans already sick, and so many Americans already dead, that even Trump found it impossible to ignore.
  • Future projections became inescapably alarming. So much data predicting that up to 2.2 million Americans could die from the virus if nothing were done to stop it that even Trump found it impossible to ignore.
  • The virus hit home on a personal level. Not only was one of Trump’s friends apparently felled by the virus, increasingly familiar names were succumbing to its sometimes deadly affects. (Country music star Joe Diffie, age 61, died yesterday of corona complications.)
  •  The virus threatens Donald’s Trump’s political future. Though his poll numbers are rising, and while his ostensible competitor for the White House, a man who as I dimly recall is named Joe Biden, remains largely invisible, Trump understands that his handling of the crisis will be the platform he must run on.*
  •  Fear is a powerful motivator. The possible risks of Trump’s continuing to defy the experts were getting to be higher than the possible rewards for nudging the nation to “get back to work.”   
  • Fauci was coming to personify the resistance. He was coming to be widely regarded as a hero whose expertise was beyond question, and whose willingness to judiciously but fearlessly take on the president was greatly admired.   
  • It dawned on the president that though he had power, there is another coin in the realm, influence. Influence, of which Fauci, because of his scientific expertise, has a copious amount – and which seems in the current context to be of great value. Of greater value probably even than power.

In a recent column in USA Today, David Rubenstein wrote that Dr. Anthony Fauci was “without doubt the … leading authority on infectious diseases,” and that in the “world of infectious diseases” he was “the gold standard.” No matter if this is, literally, true. What is demonstrably true is that though he has no power over Trump, Fauci does have influence. Influence that is derived from his expertise which, to go back to French and Raven, is not only in relation to the president but, additionally, according to an absolute standard of excellence. All of which is to point out that even in an era in which expertise has been declared dead, when the context is crisis expertise can, and sometimes does, spring back to life. All of which is similarly to point out that at this moment in time, where Fauci leads Trump follows.


*For explanation of remark about Joe Biden, see my previous post, “Where Have You Gone, Joe Biden? Our Nation Turns its Lonely Eyes to You.”

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