Why Powerful Ethical Leadership?

Women, Power and Leadership

by Kathy Curran, Ph.D., Principal, Resources for Creative Change, Inc.

As the last forty years have demonstrated, women have successfully become players at many tables in the business and professional worlds.  Increasingly, more women are moving to the head of the table as well.  But this can still be a bumpy road for many otherwise capable, talented female leaders, particularly for women in engineering and scientific fields: the glass ceiling still seems to be there, only now we can see women on the other side and wonder why we can’t make it ourselves.

The main premise of this paper is that among all the leadership skills taught to prospective female managers and leaders, education in the successful use of personal and organizational power and influence is still sorely lacking.  It is well accepted that the skills that enable a person to excel in their chosen professional field are very different than the ones necessary to lead, manage and influence others.  However, for women in general, the challenge is different than for men, not necessarily only because of possible discrimination, but because our socialization still does not prepare us to handle organizational power and influence well.  The challenge may be even more complex for female scientists and engineers, because by their formal training and often their temperment, essential skills needed to master this type of power are further downplayed.

Organization Politics and Power

The type of power I am referring to is organizational political power.  Although organizational politics is often cast in a negative light, I maintain that politics is a neutral term, that its skills are useful if not mandatory for organizational success, and that the negative cast enters depending on how one plays politics, not whether. The term politics refers to a system of reconciling divergent interests through the use of consultation and negotiation. This political consultation or negotiation happens at the intersection of relationships among interests, conflict and power. To work out a successful acquisition for an organization, to lead an organizational change, or to manage the many disparate interests and abilities of direct reports and/or and their departments require the abilities to successfully navigate and master the changing currents of stakeholder interests, conflict and power.

For women, though, the foundational abilities on which organizational political prowess is developed are still not ones most of us are socialized to acquire, because much of the tacit understanding of these skills is based on participation in masculine subcultures.  Negotiating, depersonalizing, reframing, risk taking, strategizing, competing and mastering the unwritten rules of the organization come harder to us than for many of our male counterparts.

Hagberg (2003) posits that this occurs because of difficulties in transitions between one stage of power and the next.  According to her, there are discernible levels of organizational power that one must master to be successful in one’s career.  Stage One she defines as Powerlessness. For the purposes of this paper, we will not delve into understanding this stage. Stage Two, Power by Association, is where we learn the skills and abilities of our chosen profession – to become competent as a marketeer, a teacher, an engineer, an architect, a health care or IT professional, etc.  It is characterized by apprentice-like behavior:  as we try to understand and make individual contributions to the organization and culture in which we find ourselves, we look for a powerful other(s) to emulate, be coached by, conform to the expectations of, etc. 

After mastering this stage, we transition to Stage Three, Power by Achievement, as we begin to move up the ranks of the organization.  It heralds the beginning of our management career. This stage calls for independence in thought, action, and decision making, taking risks, understanding the unwritten rules of the organization, ability to negotiate, strategize, compete, build effective coalitions, play as a part of a team, and maintain a healthy balance between self interest and the good of the organization. 

Hagberg generalizes that Stage Two power accentuates what could be thought of as a more feminine expression of power, whereas Stage Three calls for a more masculine demonstration.  For men, moving from Two to Three is the easiest transition among the stages: they are socialized to expect that they will move from Stage Two to Stage Three, and other male hands reach down to help them up.  For women, Hagberg asserts that this transition is the hardest: some of the more agentic, individualistic skills that are demanded by Stage Three are more foreign to our upbringing and to how we’re shaped by culture.

Therefore, to excel as managers, we need to pay more conscious attention to learning these skills. Reflection, role playing, peer coaching based on an understanding of the types of skills needed to excel at Stage Three all become useful tools in the acquisition of what have traditionally been thought of as masculine-identified traits.

Scientific and Engineering Subcultures

The challenge of acquiring Level Three skills may be even greater for women in scientific or engineering fields, because the nature of their training leaves them less prepared to deal with the non-rational world of management and organization politics. 

In instances such as these, women (and men) are not only taught about, but enculturated into a world of technical competence that accentuates the use of rationality, data and logic.  Here, problems can be solved through the application of superior intellect, and the right answer is one that can be objectively clear to others.  This culture tends to downplay, if not neglect, questions such as multiple goods, conflicting interests, power plays, the importance of relationships and other issues typical in management situations.

For female high achievers whose training has landed them in such a defined subculture, in addition to the processes identified above, assisting them in learning about Stage Three power may be accelerated through the application of tools and techniques borrowed from cross cultural education.  Identifying values, beliefs, communication patterns and other behaviors common to their culture, and then doing the same for their organization’s management culture can be a way to increase self awareness and allow the learning of new behaviors in a way that doesn’t evaluate their own as better than or less then, but mainly different from.

From Management to Leadership

If management is about dealing effectively with operational issues facing an organization, leadership can be thought of as successfully leading the organization toward its desired future.  To return to Hagberg’s hierarchy, leadership emerges for an individual when they make the transition to Stage Four: Power by Reflection.  This is where we move away from achievement for achievement’s sake, and the need to prove through our accomplishments that we have ‘made it’, and move on to questions of meaning.  Is this the best course for the organization (rather than is this the best course for me within the organization)?  How can we creatively solve this problem and make it come out best for all involved (rather than relying on ways that may be tried and true, but leave out important stakeholder groups)?

Whereas the easiest transition for men is from Stage Two to Stage Three, the easiest transition for women is from Stage Three to Stage Four.  That is, women seem to be more easily able, once they have achieved positional power and know fully how to employ it, to then separate out their own ego needs from the needs of others involved and to value them all more equally.  Therefore, when confronting the multiple complexities that face organization managers and leaders these days, they may be more readily able to set aside their own self interest, or at least put it in its proper context, and see a larger range of options for moving forward. 

In all, there is much to be gained both for organizations and for women themselves as they make this investment in consciously fostering the learning of political and influence skills.  Not only will it help women have richer, more rewarding careers, it will ensure that organizations meet most effectively the complex challenges they face in the global business world these days when every staff member’s best thinking, risk taking, strategizing and negotiating skills are fully present at every position around the table.


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