In General

There is a large space between having power and being powerful.  Women have historically had a love hate relationship with power.   I personally have had a love hate relationship with power.  In some situations in my corporate career, I was in positions of great power but had a hard time exercising it. As women, we have fought throughout history for our rights to be empowered. Why then can we be so ambivalent about power when we get it?

A personal story that illustrates the point.  A few years ago, my company asked me to move to Mexico to turn the business around from our rapid market share declines.  I had P&L responsibility, leadership for all functions (including a manufacturing plant and R&D), in total an organization of about 600 people.  I felt energized by the challenge.  Our turnaround strategy included rapid new product introductions and our team came together to make this happen. Here was the challenge. Our local plant manager, who also had a reporting relationship into the Global Supply Chain Head, was hyper-focused on lowering costs. New products would increase plant costs so he was resisting the launch plan.  Who has the power to make the call? Technically, I had the power to do so as the P&L leader.  Did I exercise that power? Not really. Not the way most men would.  Make the call. Move on.  Instead of asserting, I found myself negotiating, cajoling, bridge-building.  It was a longer and frankly much more painful process, and I didn’t necessarily feel very powerful through it.  Sound familiar?

The story ends well.  We tripled our rate of innovation, regained market share and profit.  However, the experience taught me important lessons about power. Here’s what I learned about what keeps women from exercising power as men do:

1)      Our desire to be liked – Whether we attribute this to the way we are raised with gender stereotypes or even the ways our brains evolved over time, women face what Catalyst calls the double bind.  Women behaving assertively are viewed as competent but not as effective interpersonally. If we behave according to gender stereotype, we are viewed as less decisive. In my Mexico role, I am sure there were a few men looking at the situation wondering “why is she not using her power?”

2)      Our natural inclination to prefer collaboration over competitionStudies show that women are rated higher on factors like collaboration, teamwork, and relationship building while men are rated higher on developing a strategic perspective.  These studies resonate with my personal experience and other research that suggests that women when faced with a conflict will “tend and befriend”.

3)      Lower (perceived or real) self-confidence – Our self-confidence impacts our own perceptions of how much power we have. In European studies, women reported feeling less self-confident than men.  Men were more confident with 70% of them having high or very high levels of self-confidence, compared to 50% of the women.  Half of women managers admitted to feelings of self-doubt about their performance compared to only 31% of men (this may be driven by the fact that gender roles make it easier for women to own up to feelings of low self-confidence).   Some behaviors that women exhibit are also perceived as indicators of low self-confidence: being overly modest, sharing credit, asking for others’ input, being deferential, not “bragging” about our accomplishments, not asking for the next promotion, being silent in discussions, not taking our seat at the table.

So why do women have an ambivalent relationship with power? It’s because the traditional definition of power that is exercised around us doesn’t feel authentic for many of us.  It can feel more autocratic and self-serving than we’re comfortable with.  If this is the predominant way we perceive power being exercised in organizations, women risk burning out from the constant coping and adapting they have to do.  Organizations risk women opting out altogether.

We need to create an evolved definition of power, one that doesn’t create internal conflict in half the talent available in today’s workplaces.  Let’s call this the “transformational style” of power.  It comes from a style of leadership called transformational leadership, a more collaborative, engaging and inspirational way to lead.  It’s time that all leaders (men and women) recognize this type of power as legitimate.  It’s time that each of us feel comfortable role-modeling this type of power, not because it is feminine, but because it is effective to lead the organizations of today and tomorrow.

What is the Transformational Style of Power?

Transformational leaders exercise power differently from transactional leaders.  Transactional leaders tend to use sources of positional power (their ability to reward and punish based on their positions).  This is based on having power, a strong position in the heirarchy.  Transformational leaders tend to use personal power (ability to inspire, motivate).  This is what I see as being powerful.

How Do Women Exercise Power?

In general women feel more comfortable using personal rather than positional power.  According to research by Alice Eagly quoted in “The Leadership Styles of Women and Men” in Journal of Social Issues: “Findings suggest that female managers, more than male managers, manifest attributes that motivate their followers to feel respect and pride because of their association with them, showed optimism and excitement about future goals, and attempted to develop and mentor followers and attend to their individual needs.”

Why is Transformational Power Important for Organizations?

The pace of change in human behavior and paradigms isn’t keeping up with the technology and connectivity changes we’re seeing.  Our markets are now global.  New competitors enter our markets from unlikely places. Leaders at the top of hierarchies have less information to make timely decisions than people who are closest to customers and influencers.  This calls for dispersion of power.  Yet, the safe dispersion of power can only be possible when we have mutual trust.  Trust is strongest when the human spirit is engaged rather than just the human wallet.

We must be willing to redefine the body language of power based on the values that are critical for success today:

1)      Integrity – Trust in our leaders and in our organizations is at a premium.  We live in a transparent and porous world where the power of social media can make or break our business.  Power used to come from hoarding information.  Power now comes from sharing information in an open and transparent way.

2)      Inspiration – The role of the CEO is now to be the Chief Engagement Officer, to capture the imagination and harness the creative talents of people inside and outside the organization.  We’re biologically wired for inspiration.  As Simon Sinek in this TEDTalk points out, Martin Luther King said “I have a dream”. He didn’t say “I have a plan”. it’s about the “why” someone should care.  Steve Jobs created fans and followers because his relentless pursuit of excellence was in service of creating “a ding in the universe”.  Power is finding our personal inspiration and connecting with the tribe that shares that inspiration, to make something great happen.

3)      Humility – Power is admitting we don’t have all the answers and we need your help.  Power is creating a space for others to have the answers and have the glory.  Power is bragging about your team rather than bragging about yourself.  Power is being willing to listen and learn from anyone, anywhere in the hierarchy.  Power is being willing to be vulnerable.

4)      Flexibility – The new world requires we move fast.  How many bad business decisions are never acknowledged or overturned quickly because our egos are threatened?   Power is admitting our mistakes quickly rather than pretending we’re invincible.

5)      Connectivity – In this rapidly changing world, the ability to create new networks and alliances to take advantage of new opportunities is critical. Organizations need to crowd-source innovation from outside their boundaries.  Power is connecting with others to enable collaboration and connections that serve all parties.  Power used to be “I win, you lose”. Now it needs to be “I can’t win, if you lose”.

Our world is changing rapidly.  It is time our definition of power catches up.  If we are to move forward as a society we need to make it okay for people of any gender to exercise this type of personal power.  We need to make it okay for men and women to take off the burden of their superman and superwoman capes.  In the final analysis, if we are to harness the creative talents of all people, we need to enable them to navigate the space between having power and being powerful.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Cheryl Bachelder

    I think we’re stuck in an old leadership model of positional/authoritarian power and it is holding back organizational performance. Connectivity and relationships drive production of results, not position/authority. Women know this and do this well. Shared information and transparency build a strong foundation of trust. Knowing who you are and having a humble heart is essential to authentic trust. Women must step out in courage and be who they are, not pattern themselves after out-dated leadership models. Shared power, strong relationships, willingness to invest in the people and the enterprise, over self. These are the tenets of the go-forward (and transformational) leadership model. Thank you for spurring the conversation forward.

    • Henna

      Hi Cheryl – Thanks for your comment. I think it’s particularly important that women see role models like you who can be a successful CEO (of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen) and an authentic woman leader. Even if they are not in your own company, your blog ( can be a source of great inspiration for them. Let me know how I can help you get more exposure to the blog and your message. I have some ideas and will e-mail you separately.


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