About four years ago I was sitting in the office of my then boss with a couple of peers who were also members of his team.  We were going over a presentation for an upcoming meeting with some VIP’s who would be visiting from HQ the following week.  One of the three men in the room jokingly expressed his nervousness about presenting to such a high-powered audience.  To which our boss replied:

“There’s no reason to be stressed.  These guys put their pants on one leg a time…just like us.  Or Juli, I guess in your case it would be they put their lipstick on one lip at a time?”

Ummmm, yeah.  Couple of things here.

  1. I actually do wear pants, so the original expression sans modification could easily have applied to everyone in the room.
  2. I highly doubt these middle-aged white men visiting from Milwaukee would wear lipstick.  But if they did I suppose that yes, they would apply it one lip at a time since that is typically what most users find works best.
No.  For real.  WHO SAYS THAT?!?!?

He did.

I was so surprised by his comment that I just smiled and pretended to understand what the hell he was talking about.  Over the next few years of reporting to this man, I watched him minimize, criticize and openly berate the people I worked with.  He had a particular fondness for choosing team meetings or large groups settings to exercise his authority and make sure everyone knew he was the boss and don’t you forget it.

It was difficult to respect him. People were constantly uneasy around him. He made us feel as though we were competing against one another. It was all a power play.

Working for this person ended up being a career gift.  I learned a lot about the misuse of authority and generally how people react to this bullish style of leadership.  Almost his entire team left – including me.

The experience taught me real power comes from giving the people around you respect and the right to be heard.  I adopted a management style (if you can call it that) of functioning more as a coach, advocate and mentor to the people on my team.  I see it as my responsibility to make sure the people who report to me feel safe, supported and valued when they come to work.

I will speak out if someone is shit-talking a coworker who isn’t in the room to represent themselves.

I encourage my team to be the light in a difficult conversation.

I remind the people who support me professionally how much I appreciate their contribution.

Women are often led to believe that if we want to be fully respected we need to create a professional persona that only demonstrates our more “traditionally masculine” qualities.  But the truth is, the most powerful qualities we can bring to work are our human qualities.  The genuine pieces of our personalities that make us approachable, trustworthy and real.

The power play is not focusing on who in the room has the power (even if that person is you).  It comes from taking the high road every chance we get.  By refusing to minimize or judge.  It comes from encouraging the people around us to challenge themselves and grow.

Empowerment.

That’s the real power play.

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