This blog is a longer version of a talk I gave to my colleagues at Lewes Women In Business – an independent women’s networking group of which I am a co-founder.
A couple of months ago I was sitting at my desk scrolling through my Facebook feed for the umpteenth time that day, trying to glean something positive from the largely negative posts that kept popping up. And then something snapped. I just couldn’t come back from one more post about the effect humankind is having on the environment, the increase in far-right politics across the globe, another story about knife/gun crime and the youth.
Inwardly I collapsed and shut down. I did the only thing I knew how to do at that particular moment and I withdrew in order to protect myself. Maybe you have experienced something similar when things have become too overwhelming? Going inward and withdrawing are valid survival mechanisms when we cannot cope with the outside world. Sometimes we need to go small and in that moment I felt utterly powerless in the face of all the things I cannot change; the Trump administration, climate change, Brexit.
So I allowed myself for stay in that place for a day or so. But then something else happened. I got angry, really angry, and this set me on a different train of thought; instead of focusing on where I am powerless, what would it look like if I decided to focus on where I did have power and go with that?
I confess, I did have a little help in the form of Michelle Obama’s autobiography “Becoming”. I was inspired by many things she wrote about and her awareness of how she found her own power but I was especially struck by what her husband said to their daughters when Trump was elected:
"'Societies and cultures are really complicated … This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it's messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding.
And you should anticipate that at any given moment there's going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn't stop … You don't get into a fetal position about it. You don't start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.'"
[From an interview with David Remmick in The New Yorker]
The truth is I had gone fetal, and while that allowed me to survive in that moment, it didn’t enable me to thrive. Going fetal is the antithesis of being creative. We cannot be expansive from this place. So I took his advice and started to look at the places I could move forward, focusing on where I had agency and who I needed to talk to in order to get things moving.
When people come to see me for business coaching, they often feel as if they have lost their power, or maybe misplaced it. Clients often tell me they have become overwhelmed with choices and feel paralysed and unable to make informed decisions. So they have done what we all do in those times and have fallen back on what they know, which may be old ways of thinking and old patterns of behaviour.
Going small is fine for a while but because we tend to go inward and think only of ourselves, it will ultimately have an impact on our businesses, and out lives.
So what does power mean and how do we use our power appropriately?
Let’s start with a definition. Of ‘power’ the OED says:
1. The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way.
2. The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events
In a scientific sense power is the transfer of energy from one place to another, it is about movement and change, so another way of thinking about power is to focus on how we continue to move forward, rather than stay in a static place, unable to change.
Appropriate and inappropriate power
A lot of the conversations we have around appropriate power are the same ones we might have around assertiveness (see my blog on assertiveness here). Using our power appropriately means that we ‘direct’ and ‘influence’ others, not manipulate, coerce, impose or ‘over’ power. This is akin to the idea of assertiveness where the best position is for us to take is, “I’m Okay, you’re okay”. Not “I’m okay, you’re not okay”.
Just like assertiveness using our power requires high levels of self-awareness, and a constant checking in with oneself as to how our behaviour affects others. When we are in our power and we allow others to be in theirs, we operate from a positive place and take responsibility for our actions. This is what all good leaders do.
Sadly in our world today and especially on the political stage (naming no names but I can think of one person in the American administration who is a good example of this), we are seeing glaring examples of poor, damaging leadership because of the way in which people are using their power inappropriately, often driven by high levels of fear and narcissism. When people feel inadequate, weak or are lacking in confidence, their sense of agency tips over in to control, intimidation and manipulation. They may have learned and seen evidence early on that this is the way to get things done. This kind of power is fragile as it is constructed around their fears and insecurities and is operating exclusively from a, “I’m okay, you’re not okay” position.
Using your resources
A true, real sense of our own power comes from understanding who we are and what inner resources we have used to get to where we are today. Michelle Obama is a really good example of this. She was always a quiet, bookish type that avoided confrontation and chaos. She was the type of person who would sit back and let others speak up while she quietly observed situations and people.
It’s true that without her husband she would not have dreamed of being involved in politics in any way, it being so at odds with the kind of person she is. However, even before Barack got in to politics and their lives took them in the direction it did, she looked at the places she could push forward in order to help people in a way that worked for her. Early on in her career, and at each stage in her life, she used what influence she had to focus on her passion for social justice, education and social mobility. Happily for us, and many others, the influence she had and has grew and grew. She never chose to focus on what she couldn’t do she just kept asking what she could do.
So if you feel you have misplaced your power and aren’t sure how to move forward, think about the following:
Tell your own story and allow others to do the same – when we feel powerless we have a tendency to see our whole lives through that prism, and this can lead to inaction. Going back and looking at when we last felt brave, fearless and in our power can help us to access that energy again. It reminds us not to define our lives through how we might be feeling in this moment.
When we feel in our power it enables us to be generous and look at how we can help others tell their stories, and help them see where their power lies.
Look at your own story and what has brought you to this point. Yes you will have no doubt had some help and focus on where and when you felt powerful and used that power in a positive way.
Use your networks – when we think of using our networks we often concentrate on our immediate networks- friends, family, colleagues but actually it is often their networks that are the most useful to us. They are larger than we can possibly imagine and are full of potentially like-minded, useful people whom we have never met. So use these networks and let people know what you do.
It’s amazing what can happen when we have conversations. I’ve seen evidence of this in my life and work many, many times, so don’t be afraid to share your dreams and aspirations with the world. As the saying goes, “ We are all blind beggars sitting on a pile of gold.”
Those networks may well uncover some hidden gold.
See the bigger picture – if you feel you have gone small think about what your higher purpose is. What I say to my clients is think about what you want your legacy to be. Think about why you have chosen to do what you do. I don’t mean money, which is a consequence of what we choose to do, but about what you were put here to do.
When you are clear about why you do something, it enables people to make an emotional connection with what you do and in turn inspires, influences and motivates them.
When you work out what your why is, use that as your starting point. Be expansive and remember that power is about movement and change.
Remember real power is built on strong emotional foundations. People who feel in their power display high levels of humility and do not feel the need to brag . I’ll leave you with some words from Michelle Obama:
If you would like to find out how business coaching and mentoring can help you and your business, then book a 30-minute phone call here. Let’s talk!