Women, Leadership and Ethics a Discussion Hosted by the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the Southern New Hampshire University

Sponsored by the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Ethics

TUESDAY, March 28, 2006 – 6:30-7:30PM


The Allure of Power

“I want power!” “I love power. You cannot get anything done without power!” “Give me the power!” These are some of the quotes of over fifty senior women who hold positions of power and leadership in business organizations and who participated in a research project around the issues of power and fear as barriers to ethical behavior in the corporate world. Interviewees included presidents and vice presidents from varying personal backgrounds and a diverse range of industries.

The issue of power for women in business has many faces. On the one hand women experience their positions of power and leadership as dynamic, exciting, and rewarding. They feel strengthened by their opportunities to exercise leadership and to participate in the play with power. Life at work is challenging, fast paced, and intellectually stimulating. Women feel their self-identity augmented by their achievements at work and their positions in the power hierarchy. They want that power and they want to use it to change the organization for the better.

Then there is the dark side. Unsurprisingly the shadow of being in a position of power and leadership includes a huge personal price that comes in many forms. Many women find they have to compromise their true selves to not only attain power but to hold onto it. They relate stories of how the fear of not having power and the fear of losing it radically affects their moral decision-making choices. They acknowledge silencing themselves with respect to certain moral decisions in order to be “heard” during the making of other decisions. As a result, while intending to positively shape the ethical climate of the organization they feel profoundly shaped by it.

The combination of the intense pressure to perform and their commitment to humanize the workplace leads to stress, exhaustion, and feelings of self-alienation. They employ strategies to emotionally distance themselves from the “craziness” of the workplace, yet they need to sustain a state of hyper-vigilance in order to survive the daily power plays and avoid disempowerment. While articulating that “power equals a trust,” the women find themselves engaging in devious Machiavellian strategies to survive and prevail.

A Faustian Bargain

Many women realize with regret that pressures of work mean that regular family life takes a continuous beating. Despite the negative impact on family life many women strain to hold onto the power that keeps them “shackled” within the corporate system. Their identity and sense of self-worth is obviously important to them. Unfortunately this sense of self-worth is often derived from an organizational system whose values they may not uphold and may even abhor. While intending to live an ethically framed life surviving at work often calls for survival strategies that run counter to their true moral sentiments. So all in all, life at work is exciting and challenging, but living it implies living many contradictions. It is these contradictions that create a sense of cognitive dissonance providing a major source of stress and personal disempowerment.

The dissociation between the women’s inner and outer worlds naturally influences the psychological armor they bring to their daily battles. Their need to feel powerful and valued shuts out the internal cacophony of distress they experience. They find themselves imprisoned by their need for power and the sense of self-worth it offers them.

Before we go any further it is important to reflect on the two essential forms of power for which we all strive and to consider their implications for our own personal leadership styles and ethics.

Positional Power

As a society our preoccupation is largely with positional power. Positional power is power that comes from the outside, it is assigned power. Positional power, often referred to as formal authority, entitles the holder of the position to exercise power over others. This might be to enforce laws, exact obedience, determine or judge certain issues or make certain decisions. Sometimes positional power is attained by association with someone else in a position of formal authority. Other times it comes with technical expertise. In some societies, positional power is associated with age or another social or cultural factor.

Positional power concerns influence over externals. Positional power is a temporary entitlement that comes with a job, an appointment, an office, a position. But jobs and positions are not permanent. They are given or ascribed; they are transient and usually on loan. Positions can be removed, lost, or taken away at any time. It is here we detect the shadow side of positional power: Those in positional power are invariably drawn into a “catch 22.” The very condition of having positional power creates the fear of losing it, and losing it is inevitable. The more positional power one has the more one has to lose. Unsurprisingly this fear of loss leads to the desire for more and more positional power. The women in the research study admitted being caught up in this dynamic.

Understanding the transitory nature of positional power is critical to finding an empowered professional life. There is no question, we need positional power. As professional women we need to know how to get it, how to hold onto it and how not to disempower ourselves.

Personal Power

The power that really counts, however, is personal power. Personal power comes from the inside, it inheres in our being. Personal power belongs to us. It cannot be taken away; it can only be given away. One way of giving away our personal power is to get caught up in the “catch 22” described earlier. Let us take a closer look at the meaning of personal power.

I define personal power as an inner capacity. A “capacity” describes an ability to receive, hold, absorb, retain, produce, make or create something. It describes the maximum possible amount or the innate potential for development or accomplishment of something. Personal power, therefore, is the capacity to adapt, the capacity to learn, the capacity to cope with uncertainty, the capacity to grow, the capacity to serve, and the capacity to be flexible without abandoning one’s self or one’s principles. Personal power is the capacity to integrate our inner and outer worlds; the capacity to integrate the past and the future; the capacity to adapt to uncertain circumstances; and the capacity to respond and engage with new realities.

The inner capacity that resides in each one of us has infinite potential. Once we come to know and trust this enormous inner personal potential we become less vulnerable to the lure of ever more positional power, to the divisive power plays that dominate corporate cultures, and to the culture of fear that embraces our world.

If we want to test out whether the idea of infinite personal power has validity just consider who and what we feel passionate about. Think of the enormous energy and power that fires our passions. There is nothing we cannot do for someone we love passionately or in order to serve our passionate ideas and beliefs. We can literally “move heaven and earth” to satisfy those passions. Think of those things we say we would live for or die for. Our passions are a manifestation of our infinite personal power and potential. Unfortunately, the challenges of creating a balanced life in our complex and challenging world have shut down some of the passionate energy that resides within. To find our personal power we need to reclaim who we are and the passions that are part of our human nature. Once we do this the positional power will follow!

Losing Positional Power

As I mentioned, positional power is assigned power that entitles the holder to exercise some form of power over others, for example exact obedience or allocate resources. The limits and boundaries of positional power are usually defined with the assignment of the position. Here the person in positional power (or formal authority as we sometimes call it), can use her power with prudence, benevolence and perspicacity. Alternatively she can abuse her power by acting negligently, unkindly, or thoughtlessly. She can also shy away from the powers with which she is vested and soon someone else will lay claim to them. In the latter two examples the woman in power has disempowered herself, by either misusing her power or not taking it up in an authoritative way. In these cases it is simply a matter of time before her power will be taken away from her. In positional power situations we can give away our power or it can be taken away.

Losing Personal Power

Losing our personal power is another ball of wax. Our personal power, which inheres in our being, cannot be taken away from us. Only we can give it away! Unfortunately, we give it away only too readily both consciously and unconsciously.

Denying our Fears

Let us look at some of the important ways in which we give away our personal power. The first and most important is not knowing or being out of touch with what we fear or denying our fears. This includes our fear around the potential loss of positional power. Not owning and working with our fears makes us defensive, consciously or unconsciously, leading us to close down to people and opportunities. When we operate from a place of disowned fear we make fear-based decisions that do not take all factors in consideration and that usually focus on the dark side of the alternatives open to us.


Another way in which we disempower ourselves is when we are dishonest either to others or ourselves. Dishonesty harms our center of being. It negatively affects our sense of self even when we try to justify our actions. The soul aspires to truth and clarity. Dishonesty goes so counter to who we are that we experience a physiological change, hence the use of lie detectors.

Poor Self-Knowledge

Poor self-knowledge and poor self-acceptance also lead to disempowerment. When we suppress or repress those parts of ourselves that we do not want to be part of us they are relegated to the unconscious where they take on a life of their own. Our anger, our envy, our greed, and our ability to be complicit with evil we then project out onto others thereby creating our own “axis of evil.” We make others the bad guy and kid ourselves that we represent only the good. Unfortunately for us, the unconscious has a way of showing up when we least expect it and reveals in all kinds of ways what has been repressed. Haven’t we all had the experience of “I don’t know what came over me but I lost it,” or “I wish I had not done that – it was so uncharacteristic of me.” Our unconscious torpedoes our superficial sense of self and our surface moral intentions thereby disempowering us in the most embarrassing ways. Projecting onto others, feeling resentful and victimized are all ways in which we give away our personal power to others.

Compromising Our Values

We disempower ourselves every time we compromise our prime or non-negotiable values. Once we betray these fundamental principles which have shaped our lives and which give us a sense of self-worth we find ourselves on shaky ground. How can we hold onto our personal power if we deny what we feel powerful about? How will we be able to hold steady in the turmoil of the world if we do not insist on some immovable personal standards? This leads me to the next disempowering issue, conflict.

Conflict Avoidance

Many women avoid conflict. Their reasons appear valid. They claim they have been socialized to be the caretaker and the mediator, or that guys immediately label women who engage in conflict as difficult “bitches.” Part of our adaptive work is to overcome these barriers. Conflict avoidance is disempowering as it denies the authenticity of who one is and what one stands for. As women we need to excel at managing conflict. We need to step back from personalizing the issue and realize that we are engaging in an encounter with someone else’s views or ideas – not the person. There are many negotiation and conflict management courses. If you tend to avoid conflict a good one is worth every penny in terms of future self-edification.

Dancing as Fast as We Can

The final point I wish to raise here under disempowerment is our tendency to “dance as fast as we can.” We tend to take on more and more, never asking ourselves what we might give up rather than take on. The frenetic pace we allow ourselves to get caught up in is tiring, stressful and self-alienating. Losing one’s boundaries around our work and our personal time is disempowering. We need to have time to stop, to take care of our souls, to consider our choices and to hear the silence. Both our personal and positional power are at great risk if we do not regularly get off the dance floor and take time to get on the balcony.

Finding the Balance, Taking Control

However, all is not lost. From my experience once women are made aware of the contradictions they live and their deep levels of denial around their distress that stem from the value tensions they experience in the corporate rat race, they immediately feel in greater personal control. Awareness and naming of the issues that keep them caught up in the power-fear dynamic eliminates is the first step in taking their power back. By facing the dragon so to speak they experience relief and a greater sense of command over their lives.

So what lessons might we learn from this research? For one, while women have come far in their fight to get into the corporate power hierarchy, they would do well to create their own way of taking up and wielding their power. Typically women either learn the male way of doing things, and then strategize, blend in and negotiate, or use more feminine seductive strategies for getting ahead. Maybe other ways need to be explored and practiced. While positional power is important it might also be helpful to be aware that without a strong sense of personal power, positional power is harder to gain and easily lost. Power plays are disempowering in themselves so one major challenge is how to side-step them or diffuse them.

Women have many opportunities to show new and different styles of leadership where their use of power helps shape a positive ethical environment. Now is the time to take a step back and consider how you can do just that!

The research findings from this study inform the curriculum of a series of seminars on Women, Leadership and Ethics. Experiential work, exercises, case studies and role-plays help seminar participants explore their personal power as a capacity to adapt to uncertain circumstances and to respond to new realities in an engaged way. Participants learn how to strengthen their personal power by being in touch with any cognitive dissonance in their lives. Practice in accessing their own authentic personal power enhances their ability to hold both the light and the shadow inherent in positions of power and leadership. Powerful stuff!

For more information contact Annabel Beerel, Sabbatical Replacement, Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Ethics, Southern New Hampshire University. Tel: 603.668.2211 x2254 or a.beerel@snhu.edu.

Dr. Annabel Beerel's Bio-Click here

(Post Date 30 March 2006)

HCS readers are invited to view other articles about SNHU or business ethics at our extensive, permanent archives under the Business Ethics section at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/archivebusinessethics.html or the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Southern New Hampshire University at http://www.helleniccomserve.com/archivepapoutsychairbizethics.html.

The purpose of the disguished chair in ethics is to promote and enhance students and community members awareness of ethics in personal and professional settings through teaching, community lectures and conferences. These events will foster understanding and assist in the application of lessons taught by current and classical ethicists to 21st-century settings.The chair serves as the cornerstone for an integrated university program in business ethics that encompasses the undergraduate and graduate levels. For more information about these events or about the ethics chair, contact Jane Yerrington at SNHU (603-668-2211 x2488) or visit the webpages of the ethics chair at http://www.snhu.edu/1301.asp.

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