Women, Power And That Thing We Do

10/10/2016 05:50 pm ET

Power. It’s a word that conjures up lots of mixed feelings – confusion, anger, desire, fear, misunderstanding, etc. In my work with women leaders, I find it’s a concept that continues to trip us up. We want it, we shy away from it, we go about it in the wrong way.

The confusion is understandable. Up until now, we’ve primarily had masculine role models of leadership to emulate and aspire to. We’ve pursued goals and accomplishments based mostly on external measures of success and a win-lose paradigm. We’ve had to hide parts of ourselves to play the game and get ahead. Like contortionists, we’ve manipulated ourselves to fit in depending on the circumstances.

Power (and just to be clear, I’m talking about right use of power), is a really good thing. Power is what allows us to take care of what we most care about. (Read that last sentence again, slowly.) The more you have, the better able you are to take care of what you, and those you work with, most care about.

Who wouldn’t want that?!

And, while there isn’t a definition that we can all agree on, consider that feminine power can be characterized as creation with, not control over. Feminine power takes a different approach from masculine power. It privileges relationship as much as task. It emphasizes inter-action, inter-relatedness, and connection over separation. It seeks more integration of mind, body and heart into decision making. It has tolerance for uncertainty. It allows for paradox and doesn’t insist on black and white thinking for the sake of expediency or political correctness.

Feminine power does not exclude the best of masculine power which has created great breakthroughs and innovations for humanity. Still, a purely masculine view and approach to power over the last several hundred years (if not longer) has resulted in an overall diminishment, not increase, of humanity’s happiness, contentment, and ability to live sustainably in the world.

A healthy integration of feminine and masculine power can bring a much needed and different approach to the issues our organizations, our families, our communities, indeed the world are facing. Most of the women I know or work with are definitely on board to help shift the old paradigm of leadership and power.

So, what stops us from owning, unleashing, commanding our power?

Lots of things! There are the cultural message and beliefs we get (from our organizations, communities, religions, families, etc. that tell us what is acceptable or allowable). There’s our own personal history - the messages and stories we’ve told ourselves about our place in the world and our capabilities to lead. Certainly there are the biases in the systems we operate within. Then there’s our own limiting beliefs, negative self-talk, and fears.

There are many reasons we struggle to fully bring the feminine into leadership, but the one I want to highlight here has been a consistent theme in my years of research and women’s leadership work. Whether talking with a young high potential or a seasoned corporate executive, fear of judgment has shown up as a primary barrier to fully embracing and owning our power.

Fear of being negatively judged by others, of not being approved of, of our own self-criticism keeps us playing smaller, has us be less effective and influential, keeps us from making bigger promises in our companies, families and the world. I have found that it’s not fear of failing that stops us but rather the fear that comes from being judged if we fail or get it wrong.

You know from your own experience that you have opinions and judgments about everything and everyone, all the time. We human beings are programmed to come to conclusions and judgments about how things are very quickly. We are constantly sizing up the situation, others, the competition, the landscape, how we fit into the pecking order/social context, how we compare, etc. etc. etc. We all do it! You do it all the time…to yourself and to others.

The fact that we all do it is one thing. What’s crazy is how we will change our behavior, actions, dreams, even our FUTURE, to be approved of, positively judged, or to avoid being negatively assessed.

A while ago I worked with the Director of an NGO who after launching, growing and sustaining a very successful organization for 21 years, hadn’t been able to have the conversation with her Board that she wanted to leave. Once we started to dig into her thinking, mindsets and beliefs about why, it all came down to her fear of being assessed by the Board as, and I quote: ‘A quitter’. Yeah, it didn’t make any logical sense to her when she said it out loud but it was there, like an invisible anchor keeping her chained to work she was, at best, tolerating. For the past year she had been willing to have her future – her life – designed around avoiding what other people were going to think of her. She was giving away her power to design her next life and work chapter for the sake of avoiding other people’s judgments of her.

Another executive was having trouble getting her ideas heard at the table of all male colleagues. After observing her in meetings and debriefing what I was observing, she realized that she was trying so hard to say the ‘right’ thing that she didn’t say much at all. She wanted to be approved of, liked, positively assessed by her new colleagues. That’s understandable and even human nature, to a degree. But it was costing her power to bring new solutions and bigger promises to the group. It was costing her the ability to take care of what she most cared about.

Consider that every time you stop yourself because of how someone else might judge you (or how you might judge yourself), you diminish your power. You limit what’s possible for you, your team, your organization, your family, etc.

I’m not saying that judgment doesn’t have its function in the world. If you are a manager, for example, you have to judge performance and skill sets. What I’m saying is that most of the time we don’t know we are being run by our fear of judgments. We don’t know how it’s costing us our power.

So, take a moment and answer these questions for yourself: What are you tolerating? What situations or people are you putting up with? In what areas of your life or in what situations are you limiting what’s possible?

Whatever just came to mind, chances are you are trying to get approval or positive assessments from somebody else (or yourself) and it’s in your way of making a powerful move.

Now ask yourself: If you didn’t behave based on their judgments of you, what would you be doing differently? What bigger promises could you make? What could you take better care of that matters greatly to you?

From a historical perspective, there has been no other time in history in which women have had such enormous power and opportunity to generate change at both local and global scales. By stepping more fully into our power, we can help create the paradigm shift needed in leadership today.

As we become acutely aware of every place we stop ourselves for fear of what others will think, we can begin to move more powerfully, peacefully and purposefully to have courageous conversations and take courageous actions for the sake of better business results AND for the sake of a better world.

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