The Truth About Power

For many of us, the word ‘Power’ is too loaded to be comfortable. Thoughts about the abuse of power loom large, as do the feelings of disempowerment. Over the last ~4 years, I’ve completely changed my mind about power. I’ve gone from rejecting it outright, to embracing it. A major driver for this blog and my coaching work is to help women recognise and seize the power they already have, and either individually or collectively, to reach for more.

The best definition of power I’ve heard is the one Martin Luther King Jr. used in his 1967 speech Where Do We Go From Here?power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change.” Who wouldn’t want that? Well, I didn’t, because in the past, that’s not what I made the word power mean.

In my first coaching experience with Lisa Curtis-Wendlandt (PhD), we talked at length about female leadership and power. She used the allegory of a mediaeval court to talk about the lead female roles. Roles where she holds influence:

  1. The Wise Woman: Represents the collective unconscious, influential & respected. Seen as a healer by some and a witch by others.

  2. The Courtesan: Powerful, has the ear of the ruler, is feared and judged by the rest of the court. Is discarded at whim.

  3. The Joker/Fool: Very powerful, she has the ear of many and can move unnoticed among all parts of the court collecting valuable information. She can drop truth bombs ‘innocently’ for others to run with. She has the ruler’s ear but is ultimately dependent on their favour.

  4. The Queen: The seat of power. She has the final say over life, death and everything in between. She makes the rules and defends her boarders.

I’m ashamed to say, my gut response was to choose the Joker over the Queen. Hell, I even toyed with the Courtesan over the Queen. I don’t remember why the wise woman didn’t appeal… Maybe because we all know at least one senior woman in STEM whose style we don’t want to emulate. This is a shitty truth that bothers me a lot (1). I don’t hold it against those that needed to be ruthless to get to and maintain their positions. I do hold it against some who ‘pulled the ladder up’ after themselves. As I get older, I think I understand it better than I did when I was starting out. The unrealistic expectation for the ‘successful’ from a minority group to fix the problems faced by that minority, while they are themselves suffering from its disadvantages, is everywhere and must stop. I imagine it was self-preservation...

I resonated with the Joker because I had quite a lot of evidence for having been one. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that I love a chat. I chat with the cleaners, people I happen to sit next to in seminars, the person in line at the coffee shop. For me, that’s often easier than the discomfort of ignoring each other ( I have colleagues for whom its the opposite). Also, I’ve been very influenced by the work popularised by Amy Cuddy that suggests that body language and posture influences mood –smiling makes you happier and chatting gives me non-weird smiling opportunities.

But, back to evidence of The Joker. I’d noticed that when I wanted something done, I’d circle around chatting to all the stakeholders individually, ahead of time, so that when the issue came up in a meeting, it’d be like dominos. I’d have all the advantages and objections lined up. All I needed to do was give the idea a shove and everything fell into place. Now, I know this to be a solid political/managerial strategy, but then, I was deeply ashamed of it. I’d made it mean that I was incapable of having the head-on, table-thumping, battle-of-wills type meeting-interactions I’d seen other leaders use to get their way. I didn’t bother to notice that I didn’t even like that style of leadership... I just felt weak, and over time, I also felt resentment. I’d done all the work behind the scenes, but my ‘leadership’ wasn’t recognised.

So that’s the problem with being the Joker, everyone else takes the credit for her work. She enables them to do so.

Obviously, each of us needs to decide for herself which role to take on in this allegory of leadership, and the roles can change over time, but for me, that left only the Queen. In the coaching session, I remember saying, “I don’t want to lead if it means being the Queen” when asked why? I’d said, “because Queens get their heads chopped off!” With hindsight, I can see that the point of all of this had been to surface all my negative thinking about female leadership. There was a lot of it, and that work is ongoing, but we did shift it that day. We went on to imagine me as the Queen of a small but powerful sovereign state. Lisa challenged me to imagine how I’d think and feel leading my lab if I truly embodied that persona. The rules I’d make, the culture I’d build, the allegiances I’d forge; which battels I’d be prepared to lose in pursuit of winning the campaign. I was to practice being HER, in the privacy of my office, by buying a $2-shop dress-up crown. I giggled about this idea with friends A LOT! I occasionally practised the persona but didn’t buy the crown (tiara actually) until 3 years later when I told the story (with props) at the ceremony for the Georgina Sweet Awards for Women in Quantitative Biomedical Science. An award for mid-career women created by Prof. Leann Tilley in an act of Queenly leadership and grace.

So why did being Queen and holding power feel so dangerous? Why was my first response to it that my head would be chopped off? The only thing I can come up with now is a lack of imagination. Just because we see others abuse power, doesn’t mean it’s the inevitable result of power. Just because we feel disempowered doesn’t mean we actually are. Just because we’ve witnessed female leaders having their heads chopped off (metaphorically, if not actually) doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to us. Quite the opposite, the more we normalise female power the less threatening it becomes. It requires us to stop playing small and to stop giving our power away.

Brené Brown, in her podcast ‘unlocking us’, prefaces a conversation with Joe Biden by describing Power-Over, Power-To and Power-With. Any time spent with BB is time well spent, and this episode gave me two important definitions. The definition of power from Martin Luther King Jr. that I led with, and these three versions of power I’ll close with. Our fear of power comes from all the examples we see where power is used over others. Think -isms, sexism, racism, ableism, colonialism... All involve power over. Power-to means we give our power to others, leaving ourselves disempowered and vulnerable. In an ugly example, its why there’s a global reckoning around white women enabling the status quo and white patriarchy. Either actively (the Courtesan) or passively complicit (the Joker and Wise Woman), by giving any power we did hold away to the ruler we serve. That's ok if the ruler is benevolent. But power-with is what I think we really want. The ability to achieve purpose and effect change not just for ourselves but for all within our orbit. That is what an independent Queen can do.

At the end of 2019, I instigated a ‘leading ladies lunch’ for research-only lab-heads in my department. The idea was to meet once a month for informal peer-mentoring, laughter, tears and celebration. 2020 meant it was mostly virtual, but it still felt like a life-line. A space where we could share our deepest fears and access the collective wisdom for the courage to reach for our highest ambitions. That’s what power-with now looks like to me. When I look at women in STEM, all I see is power. It’s not always overt, but it is there. Just as the Queen of a small but powerful sovereign state might leverage allies to achieve a common goal, sometimes we just need backup. We have power, we just have to change how we think about it and how we use it. You may not feel powerful yet, but I encourage you to imagine it, toy with it, maybe even buy a crown to practice your own version of it.


1) At the time of writing, I’ve started listening to Elizabeth Lesser’s excellent book ‘Cassandra Speaks’ on audible while walking the dog (what a time to be alive!). It’s teaching me just how deep my unconscious, internalised misogyny runs. I didn’t grow up in a religious family, but my upbringing was steeped in Greek mythology and the ‘classics’ in western Literature and the Arts. Every angle of my psyche has been influenced by the negative female stereotyping of western civilisation. Its unpleasant to know, important to acknowledge and critical to unlearn.

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