Updated: Sep 29
Over the last year, I have noticed an interesting tension and unease arising in the leadership journey for many of my clients. The last several years have brought disruption, questions around privilege and identity, and challenged responsibilities for leadership and workplaces, all while facing severe strain (physically, emotionally, mentally, and culturally). At the root of this discomfort is the controversial topic of power. The question many are grappling with internally is some variation of “How do we lean into our power without asserting it over someone else?”.
Power has many forms; the “big three” that often come up in my conversations are:
Privilege or advantage-based power - We may power hold based on various demographic, lifestyle or cultural factors (e.g. gender, race, religious ideals etc.)
Positional or decision-making power - A result of our function in the organization (e.g., manager vs. staff, VP vs. manager).
Expertise power - Perception that our education, credentials or lived experience may mean we “know” more” about a subject then another person.
Let's focus on “positional power” because this one seems to be top of mind for folks in leadership positions to juggle and understand.
These insights are presented to act as a guide or a mirror in helping you reflect on your leadership journey.
Insight #1: Something that may be small in the moment can create big impacts down the line
Leadership decisions, actions, or conversations with staff will usually result in a ripple effect through our people and the organization. By the very nature of the role, our words/choices/actions carry weight. The impacts can be very positive. Small actions like a thank you, recognizing staff contribution, or taking the time to listen to an employee’s concerns have a tremendous positive impact on staff empowerment, engagement, and motivation. However, the opposite is also true. These same small words/choices/actions can create chaos within an organization. I have seen multiple times where organizational priorities change, time is ineffectively used through constant rework, resources are wasted, or an increase in staff frustration, burnout and miscommunication. This is particularly true when expectations or the conditions of the meeting are not clearly set. In these situations, it’s common for staff to feel frustrated, confused, dismissed or unimportant.
Insight #2: Ignoring the realities of power doesn’t equate to humility or strong leadership
This insight is best illustrated with a personal example. I am someone who wants to always be supportive and walk beside the person I am interacting with, meaning I show up to interactions striving to be vulnerable, understand their experience and connect to the whole person. The last thing I want is to create a feeling that I am above someone, seeking to control them, or that I am better than the other person. In this pursuit, I have avoided and sometimes suppressed the reality of being the leader or “boss” of the organization. I end up approaching all leadership situations in a style that would be passive vs. assertive, or suggestive vs. directive as I thought it was “bad” to use these styles. To read the full story click here.
Insight #3: Exploring the dimensions of power is empowering
We all hold power. Power is very contextual and can change depending on the environment. However, working to better understand different types of power we may hold, and the blind spots it creates, influencing our thinking and behaviours is a critical step to owning and focusing on it with intention.
A few resources I have used to explore this paradigm are:
Wheel of Power and Privilege
Insight #4: Having compassion for yourself, and take responsibility is stepping into your personal power
The process for change will not be linear, it will be uncomfortable, and we will make mistakes. Although we can hold high expectations of ourselves, we need to remember we are human. Being a human is hard, and we will regularly experience unexpected obstacles, barriers, or challenges along our journey. Taking a moment to consider the context of why we did what we did and the factors that may have added to what we did, can help prevent us from spiralling in shame and open our willingness and own our role, take responsibility for what we can control, and act going forward.
Insight #5: Asking for help is a sign of strength
As humans, social connection is imprinted on our DNA. It is an integral part of our existence, survival, and ability to thrive. As leaders, there is an added pressure of “knowing the right thing to do.” Almost as if we inherit a title and all the knowledge and skills that are required to fulfill that role. As much as we may think we can do it alone, at minimum it is not optimal, and at most we can’t. Seeking help, from a trusted peer, coach, or mentor, or inviting your staff into the reality that you are human too, will increase our capacity to change, reframe our perspectives, foster greater accountability, and enable us to fail more gracefully and productively.
Honouring and respecting your power is about accepting responsibility for the wake and impact is has/leads to. As popularized in Spiderman“with great power comes great responsibility". Learning to lean in responsibly and using your power to empower others is the work all leaders need to do and explore. our leadership journey. You can also find this article through the CPHR website here: https://www.cphrab.ca/power-struggles-and-struggling-power