Conjugating Power

Rothko

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.

Success with a Purpose: (Re)defining the next phase of our work

purpose

We have a lot riding on success.

In addition to improving the lives of individuals and their families, and fostering broader economic health, we see financial success as the primary vehicle for addressing systemic inequities. By helping disenfranchised groups gain access to opportunities and resources, we seek to elevate their standard of living while creating more space for prosperity and growth.

The Women’s Movement has been the most successful large-scale effort to move a defined population into the opportunity continuum. Since women have gained access to virtually every level of the workforce, to some degree, many are now focusing on enhancing positions of authority, leadership, and influence, in hopes of elevating conditions while contributing to the broader systems-level and societal change that we so urgently need. When framed within the deepening challenges facing women and children around the world, and the recent stagnation of women’s progress with regard to key success metrics, it’s not surprising that some women are espousing a specific form of feminism that urges us to dig (or lean) in and fight for our places within the vast power hierarchy.

More than ever, we are invited through books, workshops, coaches and conferences to develop the necessary skills, networks, and dispositions to fight the fight and stay the course. Personally, I have found Women’s Leadership messages and programs to be both inspiring and well intentioned, but ultimately no match for the complexity of the work that stands before us. Through navigating my own circuitous career, observing the self-destruction of many talented and competent women around me, and offering my assistance wherever possible, I have come to the realization that we are desperately in need of more powerful tools and supports than are currently offered.

If we are open, three daunting truths can frame and provide guidance for the next stage of our efforts. First, the complex nature of the professional, economic and political landscape and the subtle and nuanced ways that women are blocked from the full equity we seek, call for more sophisticated tools, strategies, and metrics for navigating and moving. Second, many of our existing systems, leaders, and jobs are fundamentally limited and do not afford the opportunities for connections, creativity, and growth that are most conducive to women’s impact. This reality necessitates the creation of new opportunities beyond what already exist. And third, the existing infrastructure fails to map individual success and talent to societal or systems-level gains, so the success of women (individually or collectively) will not result in, by design, the broader impacts that we need.

This final point alone should warrant immediate attention. Once we acknowledge that our current approaches to success- even if fully realized- would not bring about the scope and depth of change that frames our very Movement, then we need to revisit our notion of success and determine where it falls short. Clearly, we needn’t search far. Virtually all aspects of success, down to our working definition, are based on notions of competing for limited opportunities and access within an inherently competitive playing field. Accordingly, our support and intervention models unpack this definition through the cultivation of strategy, networks, and motivation all with the goal of getting more women in and through the hierarchy, and ultimately to the top.

In addition to being exhausting, this model of fighting and competing is insensitive to many of the more subtle nuances and complexities that obstruct women from positions of influence and the ability to make change. If we want women to not only gain a better life for themselves and their families but also to contribute to stronger communities and a better world, we need to arm them with more sophisticated frameworks, models, knowledge, and tools that will allow them to gain access but also to effectively stretch and reshape the spaces in which they work and live, creating more room for themselves and others to move, grow, and more fully contribute.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop fighting for equitable compensation or opportunities. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin to fight and work for much more. This next phase of our evolution calls for more noble and ambitious goals that extend well beyond ourselves. If powerful and clear enough, these goals can serve as a shared vision, propelling us further while connecting us with one another along the way. We will need new paradigms for support and development, a deeper understanding of the complex contexts affecting ourselves and the world, and a comfort with process frameworks be they innovation, community development, or problem solving. We will need to provide our children and ourselves with new narratives and characters in literature and all the various media platforms, expanding the ideals to which we aspire and reference our own worth and progress.

Clearly there is a great deal of work to be done. But our investments will yield far reaching benefits well beyond what we can even know.

-Mara Huber