Having power; wielding power; feeling powerless; being powerful. My head spins with nuances and their implications.
Lately I’ve been inundated with articles, reports, and conversations about women and power. The data are concerning. Although women begin their careers ambitious and eager, their aspirations drop off precipitously, resulting in underrepresentation across sectors and systems. Even women at the very top of the proverbial food chain report feeling uncomfortable with power, suggesting that this currency which has featured so prominently in our collective aspirations is more complex than initially conceived.
Clearly, power remains important, lodged securely within the crossroads of access, influence, and impact, critical to the wellbeing of women and their families but also to the health and vibrancy of our communities and broader society. As a cognitive psychologist I always return to the principles of problem solving and the way we define our most intractable challenges. So often our inability to move the needle on complex social issues lies in a lack of clarity regarding what we are seeking or rejecting in the long and short-term. Without clarity we remain muddled, poking around at the edges, trapped in a state of perpetual dissonance.
If we agree to go deeper, examining our core definitions of power, we confront its most standard form-the notion of acquisition, power obtained by virtue of position, influence or wealth. As one gets closer to power, rising in influence and authority, its attributions become clearer. We see that power is fragile and ephemeral, needing to be maintained and protected at all times. And by virtue of its possession it sets its owner apart, creating distance and otherness as it waits to be used or wielded toward some personal gain.
Rather than attracting us as women, these attributes have a repelling effect, especially for those of us drawn to the virtues of balance, humility, and more progressive notions of success and fulfillment. So although we may hear the call to lean in or power through, we can’t help but pause, sensing, knowing that there is something inherently restrictive or wrong about committing or submitting to this flawed ideal.
But clearly this version of power is not the only available form. Instead of acquisition we can choose its manifest state, being powerful instead of possessing it. This deceivingly simple variation yields dramatically different attributions, stretching the space around us as we expand our reach and impact, radiating positivity and purpose. Unlike having power, being powerful is not tied to a position or wealth, or inherently limited to a particular sphere or domain. We can be powerful in all aspects of our lives, as mothers, leaders, friends, or professionals. And the state of being powerful is not given to us and cannot be taken away. It is neither ephemeral nor limited, but instead lasting and contagious, spreading to those we touch and with whom we interact.
It is time we finally get comfortable with power. But in doing so we should resist the urge to simply accept the old and limited version that we know is neither fulfilling nor sufficient. Let’s take the time and effort to clarify the type of power that we seek and need. It is ultimately through this process that we will forge a new and better path forward.
Certain states of being are natural. Growth, for example, is written into our DNA. From the moment we’re conceived we stretch and move outward, engaging with the environment, learning, and developing our skills and understanding toward a higher state of mastery. Ironically, entropy is an equally natural state, an inherent tendency for things and systems to break down over time, losing focus, strength, relevance, accelerating toward a place of disorganization and eventual obsolescence.
In contrast, the act of standing still is neither natural nor sustainable. Upon scrutiny it is merely a fleeting moment in time before either growth or entropy kick in. And as such, it is a particularly precarious place to rest or hold onto as the world changes and thrashes around us.
And yet despite its inherent dangers and limitations, the notion of standing still continues to factor prominently in our plans and decision making. When faced with the overwhelming and often competing challenges, threats, and demands associated with our lives and work, our systems and structures, many make a deliberate decision to stay where they are, steady, constant and secure.
Efforts to stand still look different with varying players and contexts, but universally they consume large amounts of effort and focus. Because the dichotomous forces of growth and entropy serve as magnets with opposing fields, the cost of resisting and remaining braced in a neutral position can be depleting. Any movement in either direction must be corrected immediately before momentum builds, ricocheting people and organizations forward and back at an often dizzying pace.
Why would anyone or any organization choose to stand still? When forced with a categorical choice between growth and dissolution all would claim to embrace the former. Indeed most publically extol the virtues of innovation, generativity and growth. Organizations post job descriptions calling for leaders who can think outside the box, who are entrepreneurial and collaborative. Meanwhile individuals fantasize about new jobs, new adventures, and opportunities to spread their wings and soar.
And yet when push comes to shove we gravitate toward the middle, seeking comfort, shelter, and security, implicitly defending and supporting the status quo. How ironic that a place that is not really a place at all can keep us so collectively stuck.
What is it about growth that seems so scary? Perhaps it is simply a fear of the unknown or the risk of losing our footing. Maybe it’s a need to feel the ground beneath our feet or under our nails. After all, growth is about expansion and generativity, elevation and brilliance. To many, these concepts feel foreign and suspicious, too airy and nebulous, too risky and uncertain. But once we begin to unpack the notion of growth, revealing its facets and structures, giving it shape and texture, we can start to develop a sense of comfort and familiarity, ways to chart our progress and find the sense of stability we crave. Maybe then we can finally allow ourselves to go for it, leaving behind the false sense of security that we’ve come to associate with standing still.
Of course you feel restless. You’re underutilized and undervalued, and you’re clearly not alone. Every day I meet women who are yearning to grow and stretch themselves, to use their gifts and talents to somehow make a difference. Whether searching for security, a better job or promotion, or simply trying to get their foot in the door, we are all collectively waiting, waiting for opportunity to present. But the trouble with waiting is it’s hard to stand still. Over time, frustration and disappointment can build, eventually wreaking havoc, damaging our careers and lives, leaving us wounded and weak.
This is what I worry about. Over the years I have seen countless women- competent, hard-working women- self-destruct around me. Ironically, their demise is often facilitated by the encouragement of their colleagues and friends who urge them to stand up for themselves, to assert their value and self-worth. Although well-intentioned, such advice can serve to amplify the damage that can come from feeling stuck, fueling the narratives of victimization and fragility that ultimately do us in.
When I see women self-destructing I yearn to yell STOP or SLOW DOWN, urging them to tackle their growth through a different lens. Of course I want to acknowledge their pain and frustration, to listen to their stories and affirm their worth. But more importantly I want them to realize that the very systems and organizations that they long to lead or contribute to are inherently insensitive to their own needs and talents that they’re trying to assert. To put it clearly, our systems are not about us or what have to offer. They are about limited opportunities, expectations and access. Virtually insensitive to talent, they are driven instead by changing priorities and parameters which are largely outside of our understanding or control. Opaque, complex, and riddled with roadblocks and dangers, their successful navigation takes wicked skills and composure, accessible only to those who have the social and economic capital to master their intricacies or endure the ride. Within these systems are nuanced rules that can change at any time. But almost uniformly, any hint of perceived weakness or fragility can shut opportunities down, leaving us feeling marginalized and victimized without even knowing what happened.
This is clearly bad news, and I’m sorry to be the one to deliver it. But frankly, I’m tired of going to women’s leadership conferences or reading books that suggest we must simply toughen up, lean in to the challenges, or set our aspirations higher. It is time we admit that the challenges and roadblocks that threaten our growth, both individually and collectively, are increasingly complex, subtle and nuanced, calling for sophisticated tools, frameworks, and support.
In addition to being smart and competent within our respective areas of focus, we need to be strategic, flexible, and resilient. And of course above all we need to be likable and pleasant to be around, regardless of the conditions or expectations we are expected to endure. These qualities are necessary for us to be successful, to be given opportunities to work and support our families, and to cultivate spheres of influence through which we can eventually (collectively) steward institutional change and community impact.
This last piece is absolutely critical, although many continue to suggest that our own individual security and needs must come first before we can set any larger humanitarian goals. With recognition that I approach these thoughts from a position of financial stability and privilege, I would like to test this assumption, suggesting that the act of expanding our lens beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs is a necessary ingredient for the type of growth and fulfillment that we crave and need. It is also a necessary ingredient for being strategic, nimble, and an effective leader- and indisputably necessary to save and change the very systems that threaten our collective future.
Despite varying levels of realization, the status quo is no longer an option. The new frontier is about ideation and generativity- expanding opportunities and creating new spaces and models toward greater impact and opportunity. In forging our new pathways we can draw from diverse disciplines and frameworks, cobbling together a new more comprehensive toolkit with which we can empower ourselves and one another to be more mindful, strategic, and resilient. The tools exist although it is up to us to recognize their value and commit to their utilization.
At the end of the day one simple truth continues to drive me; the indisputable fact that the world needs every drop of our collective talent. Talent remains THE natural resource, bubbling up around us waiting for us to recognize its value and applications. While I continue to look forward to the day that our systems are designed to develop, harvest and leverage talent in its most varied and resplendent forms, I know that it’s up to us to make it happen. Yes, the work ahead is more complex and challenging than we may have realized, but the benefits are also exponentially more profound.
Our collective notions of power are in need of a major makeover.
Forget about the greedy self-serving kind, or the influence that comes with wealth and control. Although these are the connotations that are sold to us by a male-dominated society, they are not the type of power that we desperately need or crave.
What we need at this particular moment in time is an inherently feminine version of power, an ability to connect our gifts and talents with needs and opportunities around us, to add value, to build unity, and to create something inherently better.
This notion of power represents a dynamic interplay between two component forces- a clarity of mission and purpose, and a responsiveness to the ambient world. Honing and knowing what we bring to the table, what we represent in terms of our gifts and potential, and then tracking our focus on opportunities to respond and engage.
When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that our power is magnified when we work together. Not in a solely strategic or calculated way, but instead through intimate and personal connections, activating one another’s talents and networks to accelerate and amplify our impacts beyond what we could achieve alone.
This is the type of power- the only type of power- that nurtures our souls, that heals our wounds and fills us back up, undoing the damage that we have collectively incurred. Fear, aggression, victimization- all weapons that have drained our essence leading us toward self-destruction instead of the brilliant future that waits within reach.
But how can we find our power when so many of us remain trapped in darkness? Like a riddle, the answer is hidden in our false assumption, a fundamental error that is exquisitely simple yet profound. To find our power we cannot start with our supervisors, titles or salaries, or any other label or thing that is given to us or put upon us. For looking to others for our power is the surest way to never find or keep it.
The type of power we seek is neither ephemeral nor uncertain. Its permanence and strength comes from a sense of clarity and purpose tied to our own talents, mission, and what we uniquely bring to the world. To find it we must go deep, getting personal, moving well beyond our degrees, titles, and jobs that are externally bequeathed. We must delve into the very core of our experiences, insights and realizations, allowing ourselves to think, feel, and know.
And then we need to make things happen- big things, important things, things that matter. And we need to do it together, supporting one another, and celebrating and reflecting on our impacts, creating more spaces and opportunities to shine and help others shine, creating a world that values and leverages talent toward the greatest good.
Only then will we know what it feels like to be truly powerful, to be no longer afraid or hurt or angry. Only then can we shine.
We could all use some distance. Some room to breathe, to gain perspective, and collect our thoughts. When our emotions drive us we are reactive, vulnerable, and often find ourselves up against the wall.
Space is critical for good decision making- a buffer of calm, a sense of control, the knowledge that it will somehow be all right.
When we’re too close to life’s details our emotions kick in. Like being trapped in a pinball machine, our anxiety is triggered, activating those around us, shifting energy and ultimately depleting our collective resources.
While many of us yearn for more space, solitude, and calm, we mostly wait for it to appear. We somehow fail to realize is that space is created, constructed and controlled by us alone.
Every second we receive stimulation from the environment- sounds, images, experiences that our minds interpret as we establish threats and priorities, making attributions and planning and executing our actions.
Although we often feel like we don’t have control or choices, our constructions are largely our own doing. While they can default to an automatic mode, the framing of our experiences can be brought under deliberate volition.
Let’s consider space in a different way. Imagine a telescoping lens that can move your field of vision both outward and upward. As it pulls away from a specific experience or situation that is highly emotional, it creates a larger field around it with more room to move, breathe, and think.
Imagine your lens spreading outward from a place of “I can’t believe she said that,” to the larger frame of “negativity in the office” and finally to the positive notion that “everyone deserves a safe and supportive work environment.” As we expand our focus outward, we stretch the space towards more abstract frames or categories. And as we do so we become more emotionally detached. And when we find the optimal lens, new solutions and approaches begin to emerge. Space generates innovation.
This telescoping also moves upward from reactions that are ego and fear driven to those that are tied to core values and beliefs. As your lens moves from “he doesn’t respect me” to “everyone deserves to feel respected and valued,” and finally toward broader notions of universal love and support, we can feel our energy lifting. And as we move our gaze upward we begin to see threats differently, compassion kicks in, moving us out of the victim role towards a state of higher self.
To be clear, this transformation is not automatic. It takes control and time, especially when we are feeling threatened or under duress. Contemplative practices can help, giving us tools and frameworks, and signs to recognize in advance of anxiety taking over. Rituals and practices can establish time and space, making it easier to reach and maintain a place of balance and higher thinking.
The alternative to creating space is to be reactive and emotional, a highly dangerous and exhausting way to live. Since the notion of waiting for life to calm down or for others to gain perspective is not a particularly viable solution, we are left with really no alternative, that is if we truly want to do and be better.
When did we give away our power? I found myself pondering this question at the prompting of a graduate student who was sitting in my office, eager to soak up every drop of insight I could offer. It was an excellent question, rooted in what I knew to be his complete sincerity and a palpable longing to make a difference in the world.
My answer rang cynical as it reverberated through my consciousness- how can you give something away when you never had it in the first place? As I reflected on the various leaders with whom I’d worked over the years, I was left with a general sense of disappointment, potential unrealized in so many ways.
I offered that true power comes from a place of clarity, some value or proposition that one knows to be absolutely and unequivocally true. Powerful people are able to steward a mission, an idea, or a contribution- holding it up, creating a path forward, dodging distractions, and elevating everyone in the process, moving us collectively toward a better and more enlightened place.
While non-traditional, this conceptualization of power does not preclude one from earning a good living or rising to a position of influence. On the contrary, it supports many of the familiar trappings of success that society craves. But it does so in a way that is fundamentally different, flipping one’s locus of influence, elevating the importance of ideas, and the skills and competencies needed to steward them.
How do we cultivate this re-imagined notion of power? By providing students of all ages with opportunities to delve within, exploring their own gifts, talents, and passions while developing a sensitivity and responsiveness to the people and world around them.
Central to this vision is the role of teachers, professors, and adults of all kinds. For while the delivery of information and knowledge remains important, the new frontier calls for the creation of opportunities for students to connect with new situations, contexts, and challenges- stretching their understanding and skills, building their sense of power and agency. And above all it calls for mentors- powerful people who can harness their own strengths, connections, and experience to support the cultivation of students, putting them at the center, helping them prepare for their place in the world.
As (higher) education contemplates the next phase of its evolution, working to remain relevant and responsive within a quickly changing landscape, student outcomes and competencies will continue to guide us. But until we are able to elevate our notions of power and success, we will continue to miss the mark in helping students navigate and prepare for academic and career pathways.
Clearly, helping students to find their impact stands as a noble and important goal toward which we should strive. By preparing strong and powerful graduates we will support not only their own success, but ultimately a better and more enlightened world for all of us to experience and enjoy.
-For Andrew Tabashneck
One of the most fundamental errors we make as problem solvers is to define a problem in an overly narrow way, in essence limiting our success from the very beginning.
Perhaps this is what we are doing with education.
When I reflect on my own efforts to add value in the field, they have focused largely on introducing innovation within systems that are inherently insensitive and unresponsive. My approach has been one of strategy and mediation, delicately avoiding areas of extreme dysfunction while creating pockets of shared interest and capacity.
The ultimate limitation of this approach was recently revealed as I found myself pondering how to best introduce 1:1 technology within the Buffalo Schools. Although the opportunity of interest- providing low-cost tablets manufactured by a brilliant new company, Bak USA- is undeniably advantageous and well aligned with our hopes and goals for city students, figuring out how to navigate the layers of complexity quickly became an exercise in frustration.
And then it dawned on me. Maybe it wasn’t about the schools. Maybe we had been defining the problem incorrectly.
Ultimately, our goal is to open possibilities. By putting tablets in the hands of all students, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, we can afford them access to a world of knowledge and opportunity- the same access that is fueling our most exciting paradigms and innovations.
But trying to force these notions of open access and opportunity into the constraints of a system that perpetuates the very opposite? Suddenly, the folly of my thinking became apparent. We find ourselves trapped by the very definitions of education that spawned the system that now traps us.
Those who follow my work can anticipate where I’m heading. By redefining the problem as one of cultivating talent in its most varied and abundant forms, and connecting talent with opportunities for growth and impact (see my TEDx talk), we can free ourselves from viewing the schools as our primary solution or vehicle for empowerment. In fact by doing so, it moves the responsibility for stewardship and cultivation to the highest levels of community leadership.
We already know that inequality of opportunity, and measures of success, can be mapped largely to the learning that takes place outside of school, reading and conversations at home, summer enrichment, interaction with mentors and role models, and all the opportunities to navigate and study the systems that regulate growth and advancement. Accordingly, this same out of school time becomes an obvious vehicle for enrichment and empowerment. The beauty of technology lies in its ability to bring a world of opportunity and learning to those who are traditionally left out or behind, and reach them wherever they are and wish to go.
Rather than seeing technology as a luxury or a threat to short-sighted self-interests, we need to challenge ourselves and one another to think beyond the constraints that continue to limit our collective growth. By redefining our notions of education and harnessing the power of technology, we can finally realize the benefits of talent in its most diverse and abundant forms.
Recently I uncovered the full extent of my obsession with moral complexity. After opening a box of mementos that included artifacts from my entire life, I found myself racing past the photos and yearbooks and diving breathlessly into a stack of Ethics papers from my first year of college. As if discovering the Holy Grail, I poured over my final exam, an analysis of case studies conducted through the lenses of various theoretical approaches.
The cases were extreme examples of moral transgression. They included gross abuses of power, failure to intervene in heinous crimes, all clear-cut scenarios that could be neatly unpacked and dissected for the purposes of assessment. I recalled that it was soon after this exam that I left the major of Philosophy. It had felt too detached and esoteric, barely relevant to the dangerous challenges that threatened our society and even then captured my attention. After leaving Philosophy I had done a brief stint in English which I greatly enjoyed until realizing that I only liked to read and write about people, and especially those toiling with deep and complex moral crises. I had been relieved to finally find a home in Psychology, and eventually the world of Cognition, where I could explore the underlying structures and processes involved in decision making.
How ironic that as I reread my final Ethics paper, almost twenty-five years since I wrote it, I couldn’t help resonating with the relevance of the analyses and the obstacles they revealed. Without even realizing it, I found myself reading the paper yet again, this time inserting the case study of public education for analysis and moral critique. The most recent Buffalo News article about the dysfunction of the School Board and its likeness to a reality TV show echoed in my mind- name calling, accusations of self-interest and political pandering, all swirling around high-stakes decisions about closing and transforming city schools.
My paper had walked through some common approaches to moral analysis, the thinking behind decision making which can undermine the reasoning that serves as the foundation for a strong and healthy society. Moral relativism, egoism, dogmatism, and polarization- all flavors of self-centeredness that trap individuals in the emotions associated with protecting and aggrandizing their own views. In my paper I had made the point that although feelings are often good indicators for what’s right and wrong, ethical reasoning involves much more than venting one’s feelings.
And yet somehow it seems that we have plunged ourselves in a moral swam, indulging in a never-ending stew of self-validation and attack. Clearly, the issues facing our public schools- and other key social systems- are much more complex and multi-faceted than mere issues of ethics or morality. They involve structural and systems-level failures that call for strategic and bold solutions, perhaps better tethered to the world of Cognition than Philosophy. And yet, ironically the very same critique holds true. Emotionalism and self-centeredness always get in the way of good decision making, especially when our decisions have critical implications for the world in which we live.
As I sat listening to a Buffalo teacher talk about the realities facing her students, I felt a growing pit in my stomach that has seemed to have taken up permanent residence.
She was talking about the refugee children who make up a large percentage of her school’s population. She explained that over 40% of the students don’t speak English, and that another quarter have tested out of language services despite debilitating limitations in vocabulary, due to their parents not speaking English at home.
She talked about the circumstances from which the children come- war, famine, genocide; from the Congo, Nepal, villages and countries that most of us can only imagine. She remarked of the children’s strength and determination, a sort of self-selection that accompanies those who make it, enduring unspeakable hardship all for hope of opportunity. And she spoke of their talents and dreams, each as unique as their individual stories.
Yet in a school system focused solely on state standards, these kids are liabilities. Their extracurricular activities are stripped, no more outdoor time, no arts and culture, just more and more curriculum. Not surprisingly, most do poorly on the tests. And once the school is invariably labeled as failing, resources are taken away, and punitive measures put into place; anger and judgment rather than the support and celebration they deserve.
As I listened to my friend speak my heart grew heavy, but not because I was unaware of the situation. Just a few years ago I led the University’s partnership with the Buffalo Schools, working to leverage resources and opportunities for the most challenged. At that time, we and other local institutions were clamoring to be at the table, responding to a call by the new superintendent, Dr. James Williams.
But what began as collegial collaboration quickly gave way to suspicion on both sides. And with a foot in each world- paid by both the Board of Education and the State University- and a background in mediation, I certainly understood the mutual trepidation.
From the vantage point of the schools, many partners appeared predatory. The Superintendent would point out that nonprofits sustain themselves on grants and contracts with the schools, that poverty itself feeds the very organizations that position themselves as its savior. At an address to the largest teacher education program in the area, he remarked, “I know you all have excellent programs, but my children can’t read…” suggesting a certain degree of culpability on the part of higher education. He went on to describe a drowning child who is reaching for help, but the weight of so many hands trying to lift them up inadvertently sinking them deeper.
But from the outside perspective it has become virtually impossible to find a viable place at the table, especially one that is befitting our own needs for civility and good judgment. The circus-like atmosphere that has come to define public education, and the associated suspicion that surrounds all engaged parties, shuns meaningful collaboration and support.
While I no longer work directly with the Buffalo Schools, I now serve on the board of a local organization that places and supports refugee families. Ironically, even from this new vantage point, I still struggle to find a touch point.
Yes, the School District is the primary system for educating our children. But, they are OUR children, and we are ultimately responsible for their care. The weight of that responsibility is increasingly speaking to me, calling me to action, and I yearn to respond. But how?