Is it Money We Fear... or Power?
I recently spoke to a group of mid-career female professionals about leadership, power and money.
This group was knowledgeable, intelligent and focused. Talking about leadership was easy - we revere it, fund organizations dedicated to it, write books (and blogs!) about it. It’s the holy grail of women’s business groups. When we discuss topics like leadership, good and evil, morality and values everyone puts on their happy face. And this group was no different.
It was when we got into the area of power and money that the room began to twitch. I felt a palpable mood swing in the air. More like a thunder cloud, really. We began to explore this and I could see that we had hit on a hot button.
Not only were they hot but they were a bit angry, as well. At me.
So being the disrupter that I am put on the earth to be, I probed deeper. After a few discussion go rounds, I finally asked the group, “Okay, if I gave you unlimited power, what would you do with it? Take three minutes and write down your ideas.”
The women in the room rebelled. Half of the group dismissed the idea out of hand, saying, essentially, no thanks. They gave me the power back. They didn’t want it. Power is bad. Power is evil. Power makes us want to run for the hills.
Then the remaining women said that having power wasn’t enough. They needed time and money. I disagreed with them. Go to bank and have them unlock the safe! Tax your friends! Bring in servants. You have the power! They still persisted in arguing so…I asked them to take 3 minutes and write down what they would do with unlimited money.
And again, many realizing that money really is a form of power, STILL gave it back. The second most common responses were in the category of looking after friends and family. Making life easier and better for those they cared about. Very nice. The few remaining brave souls answered the question with ideas like: I’d abolish world hunger. I’d eliminate fossil fuel use. I’d educate every person in the world. Wow. That’s a lot of pressure. These are not so much real objectives as dreams, hopes and to large degree, fantasies. I’d given them all unlimited power, money and time. Doesn’t anyone want a new house or a manicure?
During this discussion three things became very apparent:
- Women are more comfortable with money than power. And that’s saying something!
- For women, it’s almost always about others.
- Goals were beyond what any of them could realistically hope to achieve in this lifetime with the resources they had available. Even unlimited. The ideas were tiring, daunting, and by and large very stressful.
The problem is that if your idea of the responsible use of power is to accomplish a world changing event, you are setting yourself up for hardship. Exhaustion. No wonder it is something to be avoided. It is just too much. And most of us are already tired! The other issue is that if that is really what we think power is about it would make our everyday attempts at welding it seem trivial and paltry. So we are hit at both ends! Having it is exhausting and using it realistically isn’t even going to make a dent in what we want to achieve. So in both scenarios we are done in before we even start!
I think this leads to a sense of inadequacy and maybe even hopelessness. It creates a sense of lack and self-deficiency. And what happens when it is all too much? We revert to our favourite form of avoidance, inertia. Maybe, it’s better to do nothing.
For women whose notion of employing unlimited resources is about helping, as noble as this may be, I ask, where are they in all of this? What about their needs and well-being? How can a woman hold power of this magnitude without any thought of herself, her needs and pleasures? No wonder power is unattractive – it’s overwhelming and all consuming. So unconsciously, we protect ourselves from further over-expenditures of energy by simply getting these cards off that table. Reverting to traditional roles of parenting and home care become easier by comparison - in our minds, at least.
Though if you were to ask a mother of three kids under 5 if she thought her life was easier I am not sure what we’d hear.
Money and power have a complicated relationship. Let’s look at it.
Everyone has power. Some use it and some don’t, in which case it is called potential. Unrealized power is unused potential. Power can be based on a personal energetic quality and is felt and experienced by others as charisma and leads to a form of influence based on relationships. Children in a school yard may have this or a person who holds the affection of a business group but never leads the meeting. This is called referent power.
There is also legitimate power which has responsibilities, where the followers do not necessarily choose you, but have to follow anyway, like a political leader, police officer or CEO of the company you work for. These women were far more comfortable discussing referent power than legitimate power. And they admitted to being more at ease holding a back seat to power and calling it leadership.
Well, where does this lead us?
I would summarize that in general, women are not uncomfortable with money. But these women at least, did seem to want to avoid the power it yields and the risks they perceived in using that power.
As a financial planner, I educate women on a daily basis about the in’s and out’s of financial terms and concepts such as asset allocation and the difference between a registered investment and non-registered holding. However, the biggest obstacle I am trying to help them overcome is not lack of knowledge or discomfort with investing, which is significant, but the clout that money holds.
Money is the primary currency of power at this time, in this age, on our planet. Money can feed and clothe, kill and protect or destroy or restore. And those who have it make the decisions that affect us all.
So if it’s not money that we fear but power, how are we to move through this? How do we take on the fair share of our economic authority if it is the power inherent in it that terrifies us?
What is so terrifying about power? The time and energy it takes to use it or get it? Not likely. Because we know that having it means other people do our trivial life tasks liberating scads of time. Others would clean our homes and feed us and drive us around.
What is the real or perceived risk? Women experience this risk as stress and danger. It feels somehow life threatening. Power doesn’t make them feel powerful, it makes them feel unsafe. We know we are dealing here with ideas lodged in the deepest part of our being – the invisible domains that call the shots and lead us to places that confound us. This is no longer a discussion based on rationality or political correctness. What we are truly experiencing here that prevents us from taking charge of our life? Taking our place at the decision making tables of society?
Something deep and visceral seems to hold us back. A sense of danger so primal, so barely discernible at a conscious level that it keeps us in its grip by its very unknowingness. It is the inviolable, invisible force that knows us better than we know ourselves.
So where does this come from and how will we eradicate it?
As I see it, there are two sources of this fear and reluctance to hold power. The stuff we are born with and the stuff we accumulate along the way. According to the emerging research in the field of epigenetics we are born holding patterns of experiences from our ancestors at a cellular level. This explains why the children of holocaust victims and survivors, or prisoners of war, have psychological and physical cellular composition and behavioural responses that cannot just be explained by their environment.
We are a combination of neurology, biology and gender. Men’s and women’s brains are wired differently. Hormones affect us differently. There are beliefs that emerge from our own experiences, the messages of our families and the influence of the culture that we were raised into. Yet, many of our ideas are formed below our levels of awareness or even consciousness. That is not a bad thing. It is just that we have to accept that it can be complicated and challenging. What it is not, is impossible to understand and overcome.
Each one of us has at any given time access to the aspects of our selves that hold us back as well as seed our greatness.
With a willingness to become deep sea divers pursing ocean bound treasure we can look inside and begin the process of bringing up the “loot.” We can catalogue it and manage it. The sheer act of exploration is exhilarating and empowering - far more so than holding on to nameless terrors and a reticence to expand that does not serve us or our world.
We will have to mine the deepest part of our psyches and belief systems to unravel this cord. But it is well worth it. The world needs us. And we need to help.
Where to go from here?
Check out what's available in the Power and Leadership curriculum.