“The first responsibility of leadership is the creation of meaning.”—Warren Bennis. Welcome to the Sum, where I share my take on the meaning of sum of the week’s parts. I want your voice too. Leave comments here or @GloriaFeldt.
It’s about power this week.
Of course with me, every day of every week I’m obsessed with women’s relationship with power. That’s because it’s so central to the decisions women make to aim for those higher salaries and leadership positions, elective offices, and grander entrepreneurial ventures – or not. The relationship is so profound, it’s almost spiritual, and often fraught with ambivalence.
The news of the week reveals the two kinds of power I talk and teach about as the basis for changing the power paradigm: power over versus power TO.
It’s impossible not to be riveted to the images of terror attacks, to behind the scenes stories of power claimed and power undone.
Former FBI Director Comey testifying about all things Russian, election and Trump. Terrorist attacks that erupt despite complex monitoring systems to stop them—in Londonbut also in the heart of Iran, in spots that are holy to that culture. And in the Mideast the lines of power shift again in a complex exchange that may look like it’s part of the crazy orb dance but has its roots in a father, a son, and now that son’s son and a kingdom vying for, you guessed it, power.
This power is disruptive, destructive, overwhelming. Power over. The source of much of the cultural narrative that has traditionally defined our thinking about what power is.
Yet the reality is that power itself has no defining characteristics. It is pure energy, capability, potential. Like a hammer, you can use it to build or destroy. Power is in sum, whatever we make of it.
As the perfect antidote to displays of raw power over, I so loved Jessica Bennett’s op ed “If Wonder Woman Can Do It, She Can Too.” Bennett, author of the book Feminist Fight Club and one of my fave feminist journalists (see my interview with her on one of our Virtual Happy Hours). She describes young girls’ reactions to Wonder Woman’s physical strength and her own sobs at seeing the uncharacteristically (per our culture at least) agile yet muscular feats of daring as Wonder Woman’s uses her power TO not just to vanquish bad guys but to bring about truth and justice in the world.
You could argue about whether women only screenings of the blockbuster movie that broke all records in its first weekend are fair to men, but there’s no argument that this is a story women desperately need at this moment.
Pop culture has the power either to reflect a social inflection point or even sometimes to cause it. It’s often the turning point (think Uncle Tom’s Cabin) or the reflection of a turning point we missed in the daily swirl of events and information overload. Says Bennett:
[S]o much of the messaging we receive about who can do what in the world is subliminal — the absence of what’s missing more even than what is there. Sometimes it is the lack of voices, of speaking roles, of perspectives. The invisibility of certain types of characters. It appears in film and advertising and media and music and action films and video games and stock photos. Sometimes, a lot of times, we don’t even notice it until it is upended. We’ve grown accustomed to the largely white, largely male default.
But then suddenly you’re a 35-year-old woman sitting in a theater and you see the thing that was missing — the boss, the doctor, the president or the righteous superhero who happens to be a woman — and something clicks. Oh, this is what people mean when they talk about representation. This is why it matters. (emphasis added)
But back to real world power dynamics of the sort that make women ambivalent about embracing theirs. In her “turn the lens the other way” article, Susan Chira illustrates why the power issues in sexual harassment cases so often look different to men and women. Referring to James Comey’s experience with Trump, she asks,
“As dozens of people noted immediately on Twitter, if you switch genders, that is the experience of many women in sexual harassment cases. James Comey, the former director of the F.B.I., explained to senators during today’s hearing that he felt acutely uneasy and hesitant to directly confront his boss, the president of the United States. That’s right, even a savvy Washington insider, the same height as LeBron James and no stranger to the cut and thrust of power, seemed slightly ashamed that he had not been able to do so… Imbalance of power often lies at the heart of sexual harassment or assault cases. Unsurprisingly enough, today’s hearing shows that power can discomfort and silence men as well as women.”
Finally a suggestion to the many dads who want to build their daughters’ Power TO on this coming Father’s Day, from The Washington Post—maybe sing a bit more to both girls and boys? And take a tip from the women training Diana to be Wonder Woman—a little rough-housing to prepare for what faces us all in this world isn’t such a bad idea either until we’ve mastered that power paradigm shift altogether.
See you next week (in between, lets follow each other on twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram) and until then, #PowerTO You!