I recently taught a full-day class on leadership to a fabulous group of nonprofit professionals. As part of the curriculum, I covered some of the common psychological traps of higher-ranking roles, such as overconfidence in areas outside of your expertise and diminished empathy. In retrospect, I missed information for people on the flip side – those who are reluctant to step into the true power of their roles. Anyone who has worked under an absentee director or cared for a child unused to boundaries knows there is fallout from under-use of power, as well as over-use!
Our relationships with power often run below consciousness, and difficulty stepping into power arises through unexamined assumptions. Some of us haven’t seen leaders that look like us – a person with a disability, an introvert, a young person. Others of us were raised to distrust power or believe that it was inherently distasteful. The messages may be subtle. Someone with comfort leading people still may not feel easy exercising power in financial matters, and someone easy at confronting government may shrink at the prospect of supervising others. In these cases, we may need to surface our stories and see if they are serving us.
Others, who have experienced power more in the negative than in the positive, are afraid they will replicate damaging dynamics. Those people are often encouraged to learn that power can be used to skillfully orchestrate ideas and decisions as opposed to pushing a personal vision. Leaders can use their role to clarify structures for sharing control. Refusing that power produces chaos and frustration, not greater equality.
In Cedar Barstow’s book “Living in the Power Zone” she describes the “Alchemy of Yes” – the magic that happens when everyone is wholeheartedly inhabiting their role. In a group with rotating leaders, she writes that all of them learned
“…when they said a full “yes” to leadership, they entered a larger “field” in which they were aware of group needs (like when to end the event, when to set clearer boundaries…) than they had had as followers. Likewise they learned that if they gave a reluctant or perfunctory “yes” to leading, the followers wouldn’t feel safe enough and couldn’t fully participate.”
It’s worth noting that this alchemy depended not only on a yes from the up-power role, but also from others. Followers recognized the usefulness of power differences, seeing it as an ecosystem rather than an imbalance. They were freed from big-picture attention to concentrate on other aspects of the group experience, and to deliver on those aspects with the same wholehearted engagement.
Our power doesn’t need to show up in one particular way. By identifying styles that work with our own personalities, being flexible and nuanced in our approach to powerful roles, and then by stepping up to them fully, we are creating conditions necessary for joyful purpose.