Like many women, I grew up feeling powerless. Born third and after two boys, I was shy and short (still am short, but less shy now). Power was associated with authority and tall stature, neither of which was me. At seven, I was ejected from Brownies because I hadn’t learned the vows and allegiances—perhaps my first, but not only experience of finding rebellion when faced with arbitrary authority. My childhood and school years were dogged by authority figures not seeing me and assuming I had nothing of value to offer (at least that’s how it felt). During the early to mid ’70s at university, power was what men in authority had. As a politics student, I wanted none of it.
My first professional experiences were of feeling chronically marginalised in various workplaces: a government authority, consultancy then academia. Reading feminist and other writing, I came to recognise there was power in speaking up, being different and in resistance to and subversion of arbitrary norms. For me, the exercise of this power began modestly in university promotion committees—critically important sites in the construction of who has formal ruling. I was committed to seeing women’s academic achievements better recognised. Yet it seemed committee members were so busy we had to meet at 8am. I couldn’t, due to child care constraints, and after briefly considering resigning from the committee, I made my situation known. To my surprise some of the men in the room later revealed themselves as allies in my complaints. Here was another lesson about power. Don’t assume you don’t have allies, just because they are not immediately visible.
What followed were many small and larger examples of me deciding not to remain in camouflage about my gender, my interests, values and my desire to bring who I am as a woman to my professional roles, even where these perspectives were unwelcome or seen as irrelevant to the business at hand.
There are many impactful examples of what happens when women have spoken up and voiced their difference on public stages. My colleague Christine Nixon did just that in her swearing-in ceremony when she took up her job as Victoria’s Police Commissioner. She publicly declared that being a woman, a partner, a daughter, would influence how she went about her job—and it did. She was never intimidated into not being a determined advocate for women and for greater equality. Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech to the Australian parliament when she was Prime Minister was similarly ground-breaking in drawing attention to the damage done by sexist norms most regard as acceptable or unable to be changed.
These stands take courage and the physical preparedness to stand up, to be there and be counted. They require particular bravery for women, who are more frequently shot down and subject to vilification. But physicality and a willingness to be wholly present is another under-rated source of power and effectiveness in leadership—a source we can all draw on.
A further area of power that women particularly take up is care and concern for the vulnerable. Recently I spoke at a conference for early childhood educators—an opportunity for people involved in teaching young children to come together, share experiences and support one another. The conference was opened, as is Australian custom, by a Welcome to Country by a senior elder of the Indigenous community—long custodians of the local lands. It is tempting on these occasions to tune out, thinking one knows what’s coming. This Welcome was a deeply powerful leadership act, an un-ignorable call to ensure all young children feel safe and cared for in their earliest institutional settings. The speaker drew on her presence and wisdom to ensure we in the audience felt in our bones the responsibility of providing this safety and care.
We also see this in those drawing on their care and compassion to end intolerable violence against women and children, including the work of minister Fiona Richardson. It has taken many impressive people, and especially women without much formal power but with an understanding of the terror and tragedy of family violence, to keep speaking up to get greater action. It’s a case study in the power of speaking up, resisting norms and—over decades and generations—voicing the experiences of the vulnerable.
Indigenous leaders have much to teach us also about drawing power from our connection to and defence of nature and the non-human world. Working with Indigenous people, I have come to appreciate the sources of power that routinely sustains so many. This power comes from culture, from connections to land and ancestors, from the spirituality expressed through stories and traditions. Northern Territory elder, Miriam Rose Baumann has said, “You need to look into yourself, and find that spirit, there’s a spring within you, within me.”
Probably most importantly, my yoga, meditation and Buddhist teachers have shown the power that is available through forgiveness and gentleness, through treating ourselves and others tenderly, with love and compassion. Power is there in mutual enjoyment and engagement with others, in giving time and attention to small delights, to reminding ourselves of the many pleasures that are in front of us every day.
There are lots of misconceptions about love and compassion and their relationship with power. Expressions of power and love are sometimes treated as mutually exclusive. Or love is understood as something that should only be expressed in personal, not professional or organisational contexts. When I was doing research for my book, Leading Mindfully, I found expressions of love as the empowering factor in all sorts of contexts, in football teams as well as classrooms, in testing contexts and professions, as well as in those with explicit mandates to nurture.
One of the barriers here is that many of us feel not good at love or not particularly loveable ourselves. I would put myself in that category for much of my early life. A great gift I’ve been given is to recognise that our most elemental form of power is love—the simple desire for others to enjoy peace and happiness. Buddhist teacher Ayya Khema wrote:
To look for love is a totally unsatisfactory endeavour…it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. That which does work is to love.
Why should we get better acquainted with power—theories, as well as our own and others’ experiences and how we exercise it? Power is not something individuals have but is constructed through complex social processes. It is important to recognise the limits of individual power and how many people endure terrible systemic oppression about which they can do little. At the same time, most of us have the capacity to find and exercise more power from more diverse sources than we currently do and regardless of whether we have a formal position or role. It’s vital to recognise the power we can exercise within the systems that exist—so that we can shape those very systems, and foster good lives for ourselves and those around us.