Warning: it gets messy
What’s your relationship to power?
“What is your relationship to power? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being, ‘I don’t like the idea of power so I don’t seek it,’ 10 being, ‘I love having power,’ and the middle range being, ‘I’m not so comfortable with power, but I know I need to deal with it,’ where do you place yourself?”
I asked this question as the keynote to a conference of 200 of the most powerful women lawyers and judges in the country. Not one of them raised their hands when I asked who rated herself a perfect “10.” A few hands went up at the other end of the scale— 1’s or 2’s. Most hands raised in the 5-to-7 range. After a few minutes discussing the question, one table of women burst out in laughter. “We agreed we could own up to being 9’s,” they told the group, “but 10 just seemed too pushy.”
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In one mixed group, a man, trying to be encouraging, chided a young woman who pegged herself as a 2, whereupon she curled up into a fetal position in her beanbag chair and I had to coax her back into the conversation.
Even though I was talking to some of the most powerful professional women in the nation, these reactions did not surprise me. I see this bell curve in almost every predominantly female group. Men are far more likely to claim to be 10’s without hesitation.
The World is Crying out for Women’s Leadership
I started studying women’s relationship with power in 2008, when it appeared we might have our first female president. I wrote an article for Elle magazine about women in politics, assuming it would be an optimistic look at how women are ascending to elective office. How surprised I was to learn, however, that at the rate we were progressing, it would take another seventy years for women to achieve parity in Congress.
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Whether we are talking work, politics, or personal life, the dynamics of power are the same. Women currently represent 51 percent of the population, 57 percent of college graduates, half the workplace, and 54 percent of voters, but only hold 18 percent of the top leadership positions across all sectors. Despite the potential power of sheer numbers in all these areas, we have barely moved the dial toward meaningful leadership parity in the last two decades.
It’s become clear to me that the problem is no longer external barriers and biases holding women back, though those certainly still exist. Women now have the necessary resources and the power to move forward; and the world is crying out for women’s leadership.
And so, a leader needs her power tools.
In my online course, Power to Lead: 9 Leadership Power Tools to Advance your Career, I delve deep into teaching my proven and strategic 9 Leadership Power Tools for women to make unparalleled professional breakthroughs. There is not space here to share all 9 of the Power Tools, so I will share 1 Power Tool that is probably the most singularly effective in women’s quest for equality and leadership parity.
It’s Power Tool #2: Define your own terms, first before someone else defines you.
Because we are all going to be defined. Branded. Named. Framed in culture, media, and language. All language is ultimately the discourse of power.
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Four Tips To Help you Define your Terms:
– Be intentional. Whoever sets the terms of the debate usually wins it. Whoever sets the agenda usually gets what she wants accomplished in the meeting. Women are generally smart enough not to be interested in attaining power for its own sake—to wield power over others just because it is there for the taking. Nevertheless, to get things done, we must think proactively and intentionally about what we want to have happen, and then frame the conversation so that it will happen.
– Be fluent in the language of power. This requires women to become, in a sense, bilingual—to speak male as well as female language. Because men still control most of the clout positions, women must be able to communicate successfully across both communication styles, while retaining authenticity. For example, men tend to ask directly for what they want rather than hoping indirect statements will be interpreted correctly. Speaking in simple, declarative sentences without “upspeak” that makes it sound as though one’s declarative sentences are questions are simple techniques to communicate power and confidence. It is perfectly legitimate for women to expect that men reciprocate by learning to understand and appreciate female communication styles, too. In our increasingly diverse world, it can only benefit all men and women to become more fluent in the nuances of gender language patterns just as they are becoming more fluent in the language patterns of their colleagues around the globe
— Say the first word. Set the tone for the conversation. Be poised, prepared, and ready to say the first word in any debate or meeting. Do not hesitate or wait just to be polite. Do not apologize for what you are about to say, or for having ideas or expectations, and do not sound like you are apologizing by ending every sentence with an intonation rise as though it were a question. You are ready—so dive in. No Excuses.
– Say the last word. If you are in a tough discussion, stick with it to the end. Speak with authority and clarity. Make eye contact. That does not mean be rude or pushy, or that you should not seek input from others. Continue to use those simple declarative sentences referenced above and ask straightforward questions, actively listening to answers. Do not hedge your words or append endless qualifiers to your arguments. Speak your piece to your satisfaction.
Practical tools like these enable us to shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention, to make life better for everyone. We are on the right side of history. We can choose power over fear. By changing our relationship with power and redefining it from the oppressive “power-over” to the expansive “power-to,” we can embrace it to lead authentically as women. We can begin 2018 with intention—in equal partnership with men—toward solutions that allow everyone to thrive with the freedom, peace, and prosperity that we all deserve.
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TAKE THE LEAD prepares, develops, inspires and propels women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. It’s today’s women’s movement — a unique catalyst for women to embrace power and reach leadership parity. Join us online, sign up for our newsletter and have insightful news and advice delivered weekly, and check out our Virtual Happy Hour, our leadership programs and other offerings.