Women and Power by Wendy Palmer
Women are capable of power, insight, humor and compassion in the work place. So why is there so much emphasis on women as the natural carriers of empathy, intuition, caring and connection? There is a myth that women excel in the “soft” qualities and strengths while lacking in the more direct qualities and strengths such as incisiveness, toughness, courage and vision. There are plenty of ‘power ladies’ (power ladies are smart, savvy, courageous, and confident) in the workplace, the question is, “How can they be made more visible?” It seems that it is the work for both the women themselves and for their male counterparts holding senior positions in companies. Women are often criticized for being powerful and being visible. There can be a societal push back when women do speak up which can lead to a love / hate relationship with being visible. It is possible for women to develop the capacity for more visibility and accept all the positive and negative consequences that come with greater visibility.
In his book on leadership Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson reported that although he had some of the most talented guys in the league he couldn’t win the championship unless the best guys were willing to give up – pass – the ball. The same is true in organizations. If you want to surpass your competitors you need to pass the power within your management. Now the person who is receiving that power, has to be able to manage power. They need to be able to move the team towards achieving the goal (making the point) – selling or improving the product and generating income. Picking up the power means drawing more scrutiny, more projection and more influence. One of the challenges is how to keep the forward movement of the project while not being influenced or distracted by the consequences of greater visibility.
What are the qualities and ways of being that will allow women to show up as equally capable and powerful in organizations? I would say that one main challenge is in the area of non-verbal communication. There are ways that women can match the energetics of powerful men – good coaching, looking for roll models to emulate and keeping in touch with inspiration and passion can all increase the natural capacity for high energy and a big presence.
Years ago I did some work for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. I was told that the women felt that they were being pigeonholed as either, “Being too emotional or too macho.” My experience is that unknowingly the women were participating in furthering this image. They did not know how to match the men’s energetics without acting like a man.
For instance most senior men have a big presence that is felt physically. When they sit they spread out and occupy more physical space than their female counterparts. When a person spreads out others feel that as a statement of confidence and power and they are seen as a dominant person in the group. It is the limbic system not our neocortex that responds to the energetics and makes this assessment – the limbic system supports a variety of functions including adrenaline flow, emotion, behavior and motivation. The neocortex is responsible for reasoning and conscious thought. Presence is noticed more by the limbic system than the neocortex. It is not a question of physical size although size does have an impact; it is more a sense of attraction and confidence often referred to as charisma. It is said that people may not remember what you said or what you did – what the most remember is how you made them feel.
In a HBR blog Tony Swartz said, “…we need more male leaders with the courage to stand down,… and we need more women with the courage to step up.”
I believe getting male leaders to ‘stand down’ in any culture will be difficult. Getting women to ‘step up’ on the other hand is much easier and more efficient. Standing down is different from passing the power. Standing down could be seen as inactive, passive, while passing the power is active and can be a winning strategy. The issue is that the women need to stand up and take the power – to allow themselves to feel as big and as powerful as the men. Women need a big presence. Anyone can grow their sense of presence, it is just like building a bigger muscle. To build a bigger muscle you do repetitions of lifting a weight. To build a bigger presence you do the repetitions to expand your energy, your personal space. Women can show that they are smart, savvy, courageous, and confident. When the women step up – the organization steps up. It is a winning situation.
According to Pope Frances, “A leader must make an effort to be courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful, a person who transmits joy everywhere he goes.” What if women practiced being joyful, upbeat and confident? Their personal space would grow – it would permeate the room with a mood of positive, confident energy setting the stage for the power to easily be passed. Yes, women need to ‘step up’ and they need to ‘how’ of stepping up. With practice a whole world of empowerment can open up to the women who are ready. As Timothy Leary said, “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.”