Five Ways Female Leaders Undermine Themselves

We can do it! - Rosie the Riveter

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We’ve all seen this happen: A woman suggests an idea or solution to a problem, only to have that idea totally ignored. Five minutes later a male counterpart suggests the same idea, and everyone lights up with enthusiasm and support. What’s going on?

In our culture, power accrues more easily to men than women, so women need to be especially savvy about how to use their power. But too often, female leaders undermine themselves. Five common pitfalls around the use of power are especially troublesome for women:

1. Pretending Power Doesn’t Matter

It would be lovely if ideas were the only thing that mattered, if every idea were considered on its own merit, regardless of the source. Female leaders seem particularly susceptible to the idea that a good idea should stand on its own, so we shouldn’t need to muddy a good idea with power tactics.

People of integrity often think that they want nothing to do with power, because power corrupts. Power is used by those in privilege to subjugate and control those without privilege. So we imagine we can get our leadership work done without the use of power.

John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause and leadership advisor to presidents, defined power this way: “Power is the capacity to bring about certain intended consequences in the behavior of others.” Power is value-neutral; it is simply the capacity for influence. Whether power is good or bad depends on the means we use to gain it, how we exercise it, and for what ends.

Gardner also said, “To say a leader is preoccupied with power is like saying that a tennis player is preoccupied with making shots his opponent cannot return. Of course leaders are preoccupied with power!” Power matters when we try to get things done in service to our mission.

2. Trying to Influence Before Accruing Power

No leader walks into an organization brimming with all the power needed. Ineffective leaders often try to enact change or sell an idea before they have adequately deepened their influence reservoir. Effective leaders build their capacity for influence before they try to use it. Like a reservoir filled from three spigots, a leader accrues power from three primary sources:

  • Power is granted. A legitimate outside source declares us worthy to lead. An education degree, an ordination license, a certification, an endorsement by the Bishop.  All are forms of granted power that assign influence and gravitas. Sometimes women need to be more proactive about pursuing such endorsements.
  • Power is assigned. We are given certain authority in decision making and certain access to resources by the role we occupy. Effective leaders are proactive about gaining access to information, resources and decision making. Where am I being excluded? Why? How can I position myself for better access?
  • Power is earned. We earn power by demonstrating expertise over time. We earn power by deepening the trust of others. We earn power by charming others with charisma.

To influence effectively, leaders must accrue a combination of granted, assigned and earned power. If your ideas aren’t getting traction in your organization, revisit each of these power sources to see if your reservoir is filling from all three spigots.

3. Promoting Collaboration at the Expense of Your Own Power

Collaborative leaders help others accrue power. But if sharing power with others reduces your own influence or diminishes your leadership role, you are going about it all wrong. Power sharing is not a zero-sum game. When power is shared well, everyone’s influence capacity grows. Conversely, when a leader tries to empower others by abdicating her own authority, everyone’s influence suffers.

Kathryn is the new Senior Minister as First Church. Her job description charges her with managing the preaching platform of the congregation. Kathryn’s congregation expects her to preach five out of every six Sundays, and to design the overall preaching calendar.

Kathryn just came from an Associate Pastor role where she didn’t get to preach very often. Kathryn wants to empower her associates in ways that she wasn’t, so she shares the preaching task equally with all associates.

The flaw in Kathryn’s logic shows up quickly. Kathryn is not getting enough access to the pulpit to further her own leadership presence and platform. As Senior Minister, she needs the pulpit to vision-cast, to teach core values, and to align the energy of the congregation around its mission and ministry. Kathryn was hired because of her preaching skills. Her associates are not as skilled in the pulpit, and the worship experience of the congregation suffers. Finally, her colleagues aren’t getting other important work done because they are too busy writing sermons. In short, Kathryn has chosen the wrong vehicle for building a collaborative staff team.

4. Taking Resistance Personally

Effective influence efforts produce commitment among followers. When something hasn’t gone right in the influence equation, the leader may instead experience mere compliance or even resistance. Compliance means that people are going along with you grudgingly but aren’t fully committed to your ideas. Resistance means that they are actively or passively refusing to comply with your request for action.

A good leader knows to honor resistance for what it is—data to learn from. If my influence efforts are ineffective, it means something in the influence equation isn’t working right and needs adjustment. Perhaps I didn’t have enough power to act in the first place. Perhaps I chose an influence tactic, like logical persuasion, that wasn’t right for the situation. Perhaps others have been actively trying to undermine my authority. Resistance is an invitation to reevaluate and adapt.

A leader who chooses to take resistance personally diminishes her own power base. Instead of reflecting and learning, she gets sidetracked by worrying about whether people like her. Reactiveness prevents her from renewing her pursuit of influence by other means.

5. Failing to Address the Inappropriate Influence Attempts of Others

For some time, Laura has been aware of problematic behavior of her board chair. Harvey agrees with Laura in board meetings and in one-on-one exchanges. But behind the scenes, he gossips and complains to others about Laura’s choices and ideas. Laura ignores Harvey’s behavior in the hope that others will ignore him too. She doubles down on other influence tactics like emotional appeals to the people who listen to Harvey. In the end, Harvey’s undermining efforts turn most of the board leaders against Laura.

Can a leader simply ignore the bad behavior of others? Yes, but only if those behaving badly have much less power than the leader. If the problem player holds more power—whether granted, assigned, or earned—then ignoring the behavior undermines the leader’s influence.

Female leaders walk a fine line with respect to power and influence. If we ignore power dynamics, we are dismissed as ineffective leaders. If we appear to enjoy our power, we are negatively labelled. But our job as leaders is to use our power in service to mission, not to naively give it away. Avoiding these five influence traps will help you lead with greater authority and gain commitment to your ideas.

Inside the Large Congregation cover

Susan Beaumont specializes in the unique leadership needs of large churches and synagogues. Her areas of expertise include staff team health, strategic planning, size transitions, pastoral transitions and adaptive leadership. She is the author of the Alban book Inside the Large Congregation.

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