In my eternal quest for powerful frames, I find myself fixated on the notion of courage.
As a concept, courage is loaded in all the right ways. It implies a sense of purpose and strength, and the notion of fighting for something important and meaningful.
This summer my three daughters were all assigned Malala as required reading. I found this to be remarkable since their ages vary dramatically- 15, 11, and 9. But when I read the book to my youngest, I was so grateful that Malala’s story was being shared so broadly. And as we moved through the chapters and incidents leading up to Malala’s shooting, my daughter’s eyes were suddenly opened to injustices and inequities of a scale she struggled to understand. And she was moved to wonder aloud how she would handle such threats, how we as a family and society would respond to such gross injustice.
I yearn for more stories of courage, for my daughters, for myself, for the women around me. More than inspiration, they offer perspective, hope, a tingling sense of being acutely alive, in tune with some higher purpose or sense of clarity. But they also offer a mirror, for reflecting on our own choices, character and strength.
When I travel to Tanzania I marvel at the women, the Sisters running clinics, building schools, working to open opportunities and hope for those who live without. And just recently I joined American Women for International Understanding (AWIU), a group that hosts an International Women of Courage Celebration, honoring women such as Captain Niloofar Rahmani (pictured in this post), the first female fixed-wing Afghan Air Force pilot in the history of Afghanistan.
I will continue to learn from women around the world, seeking out their stories and opportunities to connect. But at the same time I’m ready to celebrate courage right here in our own communities. I am ready to honor the stories of girls and women who are pushing against fear and injustice to expand opportunities for themselves and others.
As we come together to contemplate women’s leadership, empowerment, and all the frames that attract those of us in search of growth, advancement and fulfillment, we need to expand our scope of what is possible and what should be celebrated and admired.
It is with this sense of contemplation that I will be speaking at the Woman Up Conference on September 27th http://womanupconferences.com/. I look forward to joining other Western New York women who are eager to be part of our city’s Renaissance, to lend our collective talents and energies toward something better and brighter.
And beyond the Conference, in the months and years ahead, I look forward to many more stories about women of courage. Stories about perseverance, vision, and righting wrongs. Stories about the amazing women who deserve to be recognized, supported, and emulated. Stories that will help inspire us to reach our potential, and to have those critical conversations with our daughters and the future women of the world.
This Friday, at the EOC Women’s Conference, I will be talking about the notion of actualizing our potential.
I see potential everywhere. It’s like a radiant energy that hovers around us, waiting to be activated and utilized. Although potential is inherently powerful, it comes in a latent form, requiring a vehicle for its release. Think of natural gas, sunlight, or wind. Identifying their presence is critical, but it’s only through harnessing and channeling their energy that they become useful.
We are in a state of latent potential. Although potential is literally everywhere, building and bubbling around and through us, it remains largely untapped. It is true that we try to develop our potential, through education and workforce training programs. But our attempts are largely limited. Rather than cultivating its abundant forms- the gifts, talents, and resources that individuals and groups and places offer- and creating tailored vehicles for delivery and dissemination, we continue to work backwards. We build our pipelines and factories with specific opportunities in mind, letting jobs and workforce sectors guide and limit our preparation.
And in doing so, we continue to propagate the belief that preparation will lead to opportunity, and that opportunity is in fact enough to get us where we need to go. And yet clearly, opportunity is not a sufficient pathway for actualizing our collective potential now or in the future. Opportunities- in the present sense- are often limited and highly specific, forcing us to compete with one another by squeezing into constraints and limitations. And let’s face it, even if we strive to win these opportunities, they are simply not enough. They will neither accommodate everyone seeking them, nor will they utilize or actualize the talents and resources of those who win them.
Of course we should continue to pursue opportunities, preparing ourselves and one another to compete for positions that offer security and meaningful work. But we cannot stop there. We need more vehicles, more models that will allow individuals, systems, and communities to plug in their respective resources, to add value, to connect with others. We need models that are generative, systems that create new spaces and opportunities, that leverage- by design- latent potential toward the greater good.
It is true that the frontiers of entrepreneurship and social enterprise are creating new spaces and opportunities for growth. But if we allow ourselves to see potential as a natural resource, THE natural resource, we will recognize that we haven’t even scratched the surface with regard to what is possible. This is the world that I revel in- the land of possibilities and potential. And although it may seem fantastical, especially for those who focus on “matters of consequence”, I assure you that it is real and well within our reach, and more fulfilling than you could ever imagine.
I look forward to sharing more this Friday. Please join me for the EOC Women’s Conference from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 18 in the EOC, 555 Ellicott St., on the UB Downtown Campus.
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.
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.
As I sift through seven years of accumulated stuff, readying my office for an impending move, I can’t help but reflect on the two distinct piles that sit before me.
The first is contained within a massive recycling bin and consists of endless reports, proposals, articles, and documents of various lengths and content. Despite the care with which they were once prepared and filed, they have become entirely disposable, not even worth shredding let alone transporting to my new office.
The second pile, however, is proportionately precious. It contains mementos of people and projects that have permanently infiltrated my identity and how I work and live. Not only will these treasures enjoy a place of honor in my new office, but they have recently been framed, and will hang proudly on freshly painted walls, helping to guide the next phase of my ever-evolving career.
This notion of framing our proudest accomplishments and integrating them into our work is in many ways a big idea- especially when our achievements are only tangentially related to our official job descriptions or titles. As women seek more fulfillment and challenge from our work, we often find ourselves supplementing our jobs with community involvement and outside initiatives, knitting together a patchwork career (see my blog post of the same name). While holistically, such activities can mitigate the discontent and restlessness that can come with feeling underutilized, they are ultimately inadequate as long-term solutions for growth.
And yet these supplemental activities often become the most satisfying aspects of our work, significantly contributing to our overall effectiveness and stability as professionals, while at the same time remaining outside the scope of discussion or compensation. How does one negotiate this inherent dilemma?
Clearly, this is delicate business. Anytime one steps outside the boundaries that have been set for them, there is risk involved. However, it is absolutely possible to stretch the spaces around us, and often necessary if we wish to achieve the fulfillment that we crave. Within virtually any job there are opportunities to flex our skills, interests, and experiences in ways that add value without threatening those around us.
The secret is largely in the framing. By stepping away from our specific activities and interests, we can identify points of alignment and synergy with our jobs, supervisors, and the contexts that surround our work. Once we can identify the common themes and ideas, we can then begin to weave them together to expand our notion of what we do and have to offer as professionals.
But in addition to framing, we must also develop sensitivity to the boundaries and limits of how far we can go. What makes people uncomfortable, what are the hidden implications and threats at play? Or perhaps more importantly, what do the people around us need to feel successful, safe and supported? Once we understand these variables we can better frame and share our own experiences in ways that will enrich our respective work while supporting the collective efforts of our teams and organizations.
What do you hope for your daughter?
I looked expectantly at my mother as she considered the interviewers’ question. I was a finalist for a Congressional scholarship that would send me to Germany for my junior year of high school. I had made it through the initial rounds, through essays, presentations, and competitive interviews. This should have been the easy part. I telepathically sent her pleading suggestions- “I hope she learns about different cultures…. I hope she comes back with special friendships….or memories to last a lifetime.” Any of these would have been appropriate, expected, and fine. But I knew my mother and accordingly held my breath.
“I hope she is humbled.”
Humbled, are you kidding me? At the time I was pissed. But I was also sick with mono, willing myself to make it through the interviews before collapsing in the car to sleep through the long drive back to Buffalo.
I ended up winning the scholarship and spent my year in Germany. It was a complicated year, at times wonderful and at others overwhelming, and according to my mother’s wishes, I was humbled. My adolescent narcissism was unable to survive the cultural transplant. There was no one to feed and nourish it, and instead of the adoration I had anticipated the mild curiosity with which I was received had been short-lived. And of course in my absence my family and friends had gone on without me, unscathed and obviously no worse for wear.
My humbling didn’t stop there. Despite complete confidence in my abilities and promise, I fell from grace as often as I approached it, trying to navigate the sharks and other carnivorous creatures that seemed to be continuously circling around my feet.
My humbling lasted for years, and although there is clearly still much more ahead of me, I feel as though I have finally gotten it- really gotten it. Like a character in a Greek tragedy literally destined to undo himself, we are all trapped by our own insatiable needs for appreciation, recognition, and esteem. In addition to being fickle, these are the worst kind of false friends, leading us on a path of self-destruction instead of the fulfillment we crave.
How wise of my mother to front-load my journey, breaking through my adolescent haze with a wish that although I was unable to understand let alone achieve, would stay with me as a trusted foil, slowly breaking my dependence in search of something more trust-worthy.
Clearly, I am no longer pissed at my mother for the wish she bestowed upon me so long ago. Ironically, like so many of her lasting impacts, she has absolutely no recollection of her words. But as I behold the young professionals around me who are fighting valiantly to gain appreciation and recognition for their own impressive talents and contributions, I cannot help but wax maternal and wish them the gift of being humbled.
I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.
What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.
In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.
Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.
When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.
This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.
This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.
Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.
While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.