Girl power – Where we get it and where we lose it.

Girl power – Where we get it and where we lose it.
I was at the Australian College of Health Services Manager’s Women in Leadership Symposium

yesterday.  There was a powerful array of speakers – women who had really made their mark in the world drawing from their unique strengths.

Dale Fisher, (CEO of Peter Mac, former CEO of the Women’s in Melbourne), spoke with great passion of her experiences as a leader in the health industry drawing on a feminist framework. Moira Rayner (a fervent feminist and co-author with Joan Kirner of “The Women’s Power Handbook”) who presented her experience of women and power, and Jay Bonnington (Director of myriad boards, including HESTA) who provided her insights into women on Boards.
These women really got me thinking about where the women in the leadership ‘ movement’ had come to and questioning whether we might do better to rethink how we as individuals approach the question of getting ahead in ‘leadership’.  The question is about power and how we as women get it and use it – no bones about it.  But when it was all said and done, I could see that the argument about what enables or inhibits women’s ability to get ahead in leadership fell into 2 distinct camps – internal and external.  And yes, it reflects your locus of control.
Internal sources of power – Know Your Why
Dale was awe inspiring and yet very human – a potent mix.  She reflected on a question that gave her the clarity and strength to ride the rough times (and she has had some very public rough times) and that is: “What is your guiding principle?”  This means being clear about the ‘why’ of your decision.  So from her perspective, it seemed that your source of power as a woman was internal.
External sources of power – How men define us
There was a significant focus given by the some of the speakers on how poorly men behave and how disempowering this is for women.  I was struck by the confusion experienced by the speakers as to whether getting ahead in organizations required to behave like a woman (i.e. Being ladylike, being able to cry) or behaving like a man (i.e. Never crying, being clear and concise – to the point).  Mmmm.  Interesting.  The key message I distilled from this confusion was that to get ahead, you needed to ‘fit in’ – be sensitive to what was expected by those around you and adapt.
Can we have both?
I could not help but feel these two perspectives conflicted.  Could Dale have remained true to her principles and also do what those around her expected her to do?  I doubt it.  I suspect that it would probably have been much easier to fall into line with the powerful forces that she came up against, but this would have compromised her principles.
However, that being said, I think there are two levels in this conversation that allows us to reconcile the two perspectives.  The first is about your core self and the second is how you behave and treat others.
Knowing you and developing a solid centre
I firmly believe that you find your strongest source of personal power in accepting and being your authentic self.  If you have a strong sense of self, then it matters less what others think of you and you can remain true to your principles.  The people we admire most are those who are consistent – even if we don’t necessarily agree with them!   I argue that one of the key reasons many women feel disempowered is that their sense of self is defined by the relationships they have – even with people they do not necessarily like!!!  They worry about what the other person thinks of them.  This often makes them define as ‘difficult’ those conversations where they hold a different point of view – to the extent that these women might avoid the conversation all together or not express their views, and be seen as ‘falling into line’.  In essence, we give our power away and our own sense of self diminishes every time we do this – vicious circle.
One thing that many successful women and men do is keep their sense of self ‘off the table’.  When they are having crucial conversations, arguments and so on, the outcome has no bearing on how they see themselves.
So, whenever you are feeling defensive, know this is an indication that you have placed your sense of self at stake as an outcome of the conversation.  For some, it helps to remind themselves that this is not personal – this is just business.
Accept and allow others their solid centre
I agree that being polite, respectful and interested is key to getting ahead in pretty much any parts of life.  But you can do this an not need to fall into line or compromise your principles and who you are.  Be curious about who their essential selves might be, what makes others behave how they behave, and what makes them think what they think.  This not only gives you insight into their ‘selves’, what they offer, but also sets a culture (expectations of behaviour) that being yourself is expected.
Being genuinely interested in the other person comes across as respectful without needing to acquiesce to their expectations of what ‘women’ or ‘men’ “should” behave like.  This moves each interaction to a whole new level, giving each individual the power to express their authentic selves without diminishing the power of others power.  Power is not a scarce resource.