Women, Power, and Leadership (by Kathy Curran)

Sections of this topic


    As the last forty years have demonstrated, women have successfully become players at many tables in the business and professional worlds. Increasingly, more women are moving to the head of the table as well. But this can still be a bumpy road for many otherwise capable, talented female leaders: the glass ceiling still seems to be there, only now we can see women on the other side and wonder why we can’t make it ourselves.

    The main premise of this blog entry is that among all the leadership skills taught to prospective female managers and leaders, education in the successful use of personal and organizational power is still sorely lacking. It is well accepted that the skills that enable a person to excel in their chosen field are very different than the ones necessary to lead and manage others. However, for women, the challenge is different than for men, not necessarily only because of possible discrimination, but because our socialization still does not prepare us to handle organizational power and influence well.

    Organization Politics and Power

    The type of power I am referring to is organizational political power. Although organizational politics is often cast in a negative light, I maintain that politics is a neutral term and that its skills are useful if not mandatory for organizational success. The negative cast enters depending on how one plays politics, not whether. The term politics refers to a system of reconciling divergent interests through the use of consultation and negotiation. This political negotiation happens at the intersection of stakeholder relationships among interests, conflicts, and power. To work out a successful acquisition for an organization, to lead an organizational change, or to manage the many disparate abilities of direct reports and/or departments requires the ability to successfully navigate and master the currents of stakeholder interests, conflict, and power.

    For women, though, the foundational abilities on which organizational political prowess is developed are still not ones most of us are socialized to acquire, because much of the tacit understanding of these skills is based on participation in masculine subcultures. Negotiating, depersonalizing, reframing, risk-taking, strategizing, competing, and mastering the unwritten rules of the organization come harder to us than for many of our male counterparts.

    Stages of Power

    Hagberg (2003) posits that this occurs because of difficulties in transitions between one stage of power and the next. According to her, there are discernible levels of organizational power that one must master to be successful in one’s career. Stage One she defines as Powerlessness. For the purposes of this blog, we will not delve into this stage. Stage Two, Power by Association, is where we learn the skills and abilities of our chosen profession – to become competent as a marketeer, a teacher, an engineer, etc. It is characterized by apprentice-like behavior: as we try to understand and make individual contributions to the organization or profession to which we belong, we look for a powerful other(s) to emulate.

    After mastering this stage, we transition to Stage Three, Power by Achievement, as we begin to move up the ranks of the organization. This heralds the beginning of our management career. This stage calls for independence in thought, action, and decision making, taking risks, understanding the unwritten rules of the organization, ability to negotiate, strategize, compete, build effective coalitions, playing as a part of a team, and maintaining a healthy balance between self-interest and the good of the organization.

    Hagberg generalizes that Stage Two power accentuates what could be called a more feminine expression of power, whereas Stage Three calls for a more masculine demonstration. For men, moving from Two to Three is the easiest transition among the stages: they are socialized to expect that they will move from Stage Two to Stage Three, and if they are talented, other male hands reach down to help them up. For women, Hagberg asserts that this transition is the hardest: some of the agentic, individualistic skills that are demanded by Stage Three are more foreign to our upbringing and to how we’re shaped by culture.


    Therefore, to excel as managers, we need to pay more conscious attention to learning these skills. Reflection, role-playing, and peer coaching based on an understanding of the types of skills needed to excel at Stage Three all become useful tools in the acquisition of what have traditionally been thought of as masculine-identified traits.

    What does this mean in terms of the feminine strengths we can bring to leadership? Are they not important as well? More about that in a forthcoming post . . .


    Hagberg, J. (2003), Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations, Sheffield Publishing Company, Salem, WI.


    To learn more about Kathy Curran, Ph.D., and her upcoming workshop, Using Power in Relationships with Women and Men at Work, go to her website at www.powerandleadership.com or contact her at 651-293-9448 or kcurran@powerandleadership.com.