Getting Comfortable with Power: Ten Tips for Women Leaders

Women leaders get a little squirmy when it comes to the idea of wielding power. But getting comfortable with power and using it effectively is an essential part of being an effective leader.  Like it or not, all women leaders are in a bind because great leadership requires a high degree of agency–independence, forcefulness, ease of decision-making, dominance.  Yet gender norms still expect women to be communal– nice, interpersonally sensitive, collaborative.  Managing these conflicting demands is a career long challenge for women leaders.  Meanwhile, though you have to learn how to appreciate and use the power you have.  Here are the ten tips.  Some of them are counterintuitive, and some will make you uncomfortable.

1.Learn the topography of power

Where does it live? It is valuable to operationalize power—break it down into the concrete actions and strategies where it resides. Among the myriad opportunities to exercise power in a leadership position are: directing the use of resources, setting the agenda of meetings, decide who is included in and who is excluded from communications, highlighting what you want people to pay attention to, ignoring what you want ignored, and selecting and editing personnel.

2. Know and defend your own agenda

Ideally, you should carve this in stone before you get in your position, or at least as a first priority. What do you want to accomplish with your power?  You will

immediately be bombarded with “Other Peoples Agendas” or their problems. Your time can be entirely consumed if you’re not vigilant about avoiding a responsive, reactive rather than proactive position.  You MUST know what your agenda is and your priorities are both in the long run and on a daily and monthly basis, or you will never get to make use of the power you have.  Do not let other people’s problems and priorities divert you from your own.

3. Be alert to and revise your communication style

  • Don’t apologize for making other people unhappy.
  • Don’t apologize for making a decision.
  • Don’t apologize for not including someone in a conversation or decision.
  • Say no or ignore everything that doesn’t advance your agenda (take a look at Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism published by Crown Business, 2014).
  • Don’t apologize for anything unless you have actually done something wrong that you should apologize for– like a genuine mistake, oversight or unkind act. Then apologize quickly, cleanly and acknowledge the impact of your mistake.  And move on.
  • Don’t explain your decisions. Or if you must, keep it very brief.
  • Repeat yourself when challenged rather than offering alternative arguments.
  • End discussions when they’re not going the way you want.
  • Don’t ask for permission. Go for what you want, and if you’re stopped, so be it.  It rarely happens.
  • Only ask for opinions if you really want them. Don’t seek too much input.
  • Don’t worry too much about social niceties—if someone is hard to reach, leave a voicemail or text; don’t wait until you get in touch with them. But be nice if you can.

4. Keep control of structures and processes

Set things up your way.  If you want 6 people on a task force, get six people on the task force even though one of the group suggests 10.

  • Beware of the seductive c’s: COLLABORATION and CONSENSUS.  Women are supposed to better than men at making use of these values.  Maybe we are, but overuse can lead to perceived weakness, bullying and paralysis. Learn to live without consensus when you have to.
  • Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate. Think through how people are going to respond when you roll out a plan.  Plant allies in place to back you up, and have an exit strategy in case opposition takes over the process. If you don’t have enough support to push something through or avoid a controversy, consider not putting it out there, because failing weakens your power.
  • Know when to quit. Keep asking yourself what am I getting out of this.  If you’re not getting a lot, figure out how to get more (money, opportunities, fun, stimulation, experience).  If it’s hopeless, just get out.
  • Keep your promises and commitments, but within reason. Not if the cost for you is too high.  If it is, bow out, or say you changed your mind. Sorry.
  • Let people come to you. Your neighborhood, your office, your available time.  Even if you can accommodate, resist the urge, because most women do it way too much.
  • Never give up the chair either physically or metaphorically (i.e. control of a meeting, a microphone, an agenda, a project).

5. Learn to seek, get and use help

Learn to use an assistant. It may not be so easy as it sounds. Find a private peer group with women at the same level of responsibility that you have.

6. Don’t wait too long to accept positions of leadership and power

Men don’t.  Don’t underestimate your competence. If people want you to lead, accept the challenge if it’s a good time for you. And learn what you need to catch up. On the other hand, don’t let your competence be exploited.  Many extremely talented women are unaware of the extraordinary level of their competence. They are used by others in various ways (though these can be unconscious)—put in leadership positions when an organization is in crisis, for example.  Wait until it’s a good time for you to move your agenda forward. Watch out for flattery.

7. Never underestimate the aggression in women and envy in everyone

Women are just as aggressive as men, but their competitiveness and aggressiveness shows up in different ways, many of which are subtler. This point is going to make some people mad, but I truly believe it. I’ve seen it in often in my clinical practice over three decades.  Expect envy and undermining from some women, outrage from some men.

8. Be aware of the “Mom transference”

The most powerful person in every single human’s life was his or her mother.  We all carry ambivalent unconscious feelings and fantasies about this omnipotent woman who once controlled our lives from the moment we woke up till our last diaper change. We tend to unconsciously attach these feelings to leaders and bosses we deal with later in life (that’s the “transference” part).  The people in your company or organization are inevitably going to experience you with traces of this early omnipotent mother overlay.  You want to evoke positive emotional traces—be someone who keeps people safe, meets their needs, runs a reliable “home”.  And avoid acting in ways that evoke unconscious traces of the negative mother memories—don’t use language (or finger pointing) that triggers feelings of shame or helplessness.

9. Prepare to be attacked and criticized unfairly

From the moment you enter a position of power, you’ll be a target held responsible for everyone’s hopes, demands and disappointments.  You can’t meet all these needs, so you will be attacked from time to time.  when this happens, it’s inevitable feel a little psychologically disorganized, so get help from a trusted advisor about whether or how to respond.

10. Use knowledge you may have because you are a woman to your advantage

For instance, women are more apt to understand that:

  • It’s not a bad idea to feed your people from time to time. For the eternal child inside us all, food equals being cared about. Free food sends a direct signal to our unconscious that someone is in charge and has our backs. Also, hungry people are cranky people.
  • No one ever wants to be humiliated. You can structure your actions and difficult decisions in ways to minimize humiliation in the people effected.
  • What everyone wants more than anything else is attention and acknowledgement. Build this in to your company, your meetings everything you do.

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