We are thrilled to share an article from our friend Angela Cusack, Ed.S., MCC of Igniting Success, titled: Power Play.
Women leaders, me included, yearn for deeper and more satisfying relationships with one another and our male counterparts. We often feel frustrated by the countless misunderstandings and struggles of finding the right words to express ourselves and build connections that lead to the ultimate sense of belonging where we freely express our thoughts, offer our perspectives, and share concerns.
If our own experience wasn’t enough, decades of research confirm that men and women listen, process, and speak differently. Our communication styles are informed by where we listen from—women tend to seek understanding and affinity, while men tend to be pragmatic and direct. This is, of course, a generalization. Yet as leaders, and coaches of leaders, having insight into the fundamental differences of gender orientation is the first step toward coaching women leaders on more complex issues that we face as we set our sights on and claim our seat at the C-suite tables.
In my experience as an executive, and now as a coach to women aspiring to or with those who already hold an executive leadership position, the number one unspoken struggle women face revolves around their narratives about power and politics. Who has it? How do I get it? What does it mean? Do I want it? Once I have it, then what?
A woman’s relationship with power and politics sits squarely at the center of this very real struggle. It is at the root of suffering that often goes unmentioned, yet far from unnoticed. It reveals itself through our experiences of shame, blame, self-doubt, and guilt. It reveals itself when our focus is on “me” versus “we”; withdrawal and silence “to go along to get along”. It reveals itself when women believe there’s only enough room for one at the C-suite table and become overly protective of their place in line. For the conversation to shift, a woman’s relationship with power must be purposefully explored from an individual, social and systemic context. It is these conversations where coaches can offer women leaders a psychologically safe space to get in touch with, examine and develop new possible narratives about power and politics that inform and influence future choices as a leader.
Power is your capacity to take action and produce an outcome that takes care of what matters to you.
Politics is the authority you possess to be in “the” conversations where declarations and decisions about the future are made.
Traditionally, woman leaders (and including many men) experience power and politics as a selfish enterprise—a game we proudly profess we are not playing no matter the cost. This avoidance points to the underlying belief that the purpose of power means taking versus taking care.
I know this story all too well. Until I was introduced to these generative distinctions in 2009 by Bob Dunham, founder of the Institute of Generative Leadership, I falsely believed that my executive status as a result of my drive, astute business acumen, intellectual and organizational savvy plus a lot of luck but certainly not because I somehow mastered this selfish little game of “taking”. Like me, women leaders who arrive at the C-suite making a similar claim actually leave their power resting on the proverbial table.
Coaching women leaders requires conversations that turn perspectives in on themselves; examining the individual, social and systemic beliefs that inform how those we coach see, think, experience, and make sense of the world around them. For me—and for the women, I work with—a slight turn of my internal kaleidoscope reveals a new understanding, appreciation, and relationship with power and politics.
Own your power
Breaking traditional views of power and politics is the first step in coaching women leaders. I’ve found it helpful to work within the context of business while supporting the discovery of the unconscious narratives that have been freely passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, such as:
Power belongs only to a select few.
Power is gained by taking it from others.
Power is synonymous with money and position.
Power is authority and control over others.
Power is selfish.
Power is rarely understood as the social and systemic context that we live in and must navigate. It lives undetected in the background—just out of view. It’s an unspoken spoken norm for living that keeps women and men stuck in the unresolved spiral of what we perceive “is”.
Our role as coaches is to illuminate and help women move forward
with authenticity, strength, ease, and grace.
No matter where we are in the world, power and politics are non-discretionary rules within the game of business and, for that matter, life. Preparing women or men for the C-suite begins by inviting them to dive deep into this phenomenon revealing their biases, beliefs, and relationship with these constructs. If we do not, we will be missing a critical opportunity to break the cycle of our historical patterns that hold women and our world back from new innovations, technologies, and ultimately healing.
So what now?
We must actively develop our ability for observing, designing, and enabling power and politics as skills for taking care of what we care about. A few reflective questions that will get you started:
- Notice what you care about and what others care about. Are they the same or different?
- Listen for concerns, dissatisfactions, breakdowns–overt and covert–as well as possibilities–find ways to listen to a diverse cross-section of people within the organization.
- Assess where standards, practices, and the design of power is consistent and inconsistent with what the organization claims to care about.
- Who is in the network of power within the organization? Who is in the conversations of politics and what is happening within these conversations? How might you open conversations with those who wield the power?
- Where are people hooked into their breakdowns with power?
And remember, as you go through these questions, you will likely get triggered by your own reactions, fears, and interpretations of power and politics. Notice and release. Go back to the top of this article, read and re-read again and again. That in and of itself is a Power Play.
Tell us what you think about this article.
How does it apply to you and the women in your life?
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