Recently, I attended a conference on women and power. It brought together 600 business women and provided a wonderful opportunity for networking and learning. The keynote address was given by Katty Kay, the anchor for BBC World News America, and was based on her recent book, The Confidence Code. Katty spoke about the differences in confidence levels between men and women and she discussed how women can gain self-confidence by taking more risks and daring to be authentic. In her book, Katty and her co-author, Claire Shipman, describe the concept of confidence as action. They state that “confidence, ultimately, is the characteristic that distinguishes those who imagine from those who do.”
So how does confidence intertwine with the theme of women and power. What is power and why should women want it?
Sociologists (of which I am one) have been debating the definition and characteristics of power for decades. The lack of one crisp definition leads to some confusion and misconceptions about power. Many people equate it only to control, others to authority. Some see it as coercion, others see it as (undue?) influence. We know that there are power differentials, power struggles, and political power. We talk about the power of the press, the power of celebrity, and expert power. We all think we understand power, and, on some level, we do, but it can be hard to define. It’s somewhat like that definition of pornography—you know it when you see it.
In my career, I’ve had the opportunity of meeting and observing some powerful people. I’ve shaken hands with a President or two, met a Navajo Chief and a four-star general, discussed social issues with elected officials, introduced a Supreme Court Justice, and worked alongside heads of corporations. I’ve also watched individuals without broad name recognition accomplish great things.
The common denominator for all of these people is confidence—in themselves, in their roles, and in their ideas.They may or may not be flamboyant, and they may or may not travel with an entourage. They may or may not be wealthy, or comfortable with celebrity, or fashionable, or credentialed. But they are all self-confident. You can see it when you meet them. It’s the way they look, their demeanor, and the way they make eye contact. You feel it when they walk in the room or when they speak. Others listen. Action happens.
Can power be misused? Certainly. History is full of examples of the abuse of power. But power has a positive side, too. Power gives you the ability to move your own ideas forward, to bring about needed change, to accomplish a mission, to better your own community or the world. Instead of viewing power as negative, think of it as another skill set, as an important professional tool.
Young women, especially, need to be students of power. What can be learned by observing power? Who has it? How do you know they are powerful? How did they get that way? How do they use their power?
Then decide how you can develop or enhance your own power skill set. Is it possible to raise your personal power quotient? Absolutely. Start by building your self-confidence. Learn all you can about your subject area or job. Expert power is a huge plus. But even more important, take risks. Make mistakes. Overcome them quickly. Stop apologizing. Move on. Try again.
With each new success, your self-confidence increases. Eventually, you develop what Katty and Claire call a confidence reserve. You can draw on this reserve when facing hard choices, or when you need to offset career missteps or personal setbacks.
Higher confidence leads to higher personal power. With higher personal power you can more easily achieve your goals and mission. So don’t shy away from power. Just be sure you use it carefully and constructively. And once you have power, teach other women how you became powerful. The world needs more powerful women.