S1:E27 – Stepping Into Your Power


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the phenomenon of resistance and sabotage — why this is part and parcel of the leadership experience and something to expect rather than to be feared.   



Don’t forget to check out Irvine’s You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Irvine: Well, welcome, everyone, to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, and clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Irvine Nugent, and as always, I am joined by my esteemed and wonderful collaborator, Bridgette Theurer. First of all, I just want to say to everyone, happy New Year. This is the first episode of 2023. I hope your holiday period was not too stressful and full of time for you to reflect a little bit. And Bridgette, how are you doing today?

Bridgette: I am doing great. Well, first of all, the sun is shining and after a period of, kind of, gray winter days, the sun peeking out. Or it’s not even just peeking out, it’s blue skies as I look out my office window, it just gives me a pep in my step. So, I am feeling energized and hopeful and very excited to dig into this topic, Irvine. So, what are we going to be talking about?

Irvine: Well, we’ve started into a new year, so we thought it would be a great topic of stepping into your power, that’s what today’s title is. And, no, the focus of today is the reality that when we talk about leadership, be that leadership in the workplace, be it leadership in our family or in any social group we’re part of; a vital element of leadership is power and they, kind of, are synonymous with each other. But today, I think what I want to focus on is our felt sense of power and how it’s connected, really, with how we show up, especially in our body. And how that sense of power or powerlessness can show up in our body.

So, Bridgette, we both work with many clients. Is this an issue, do you think, that some of the leaders that you work with struggle with this sense and issue of power?

Bridgette: Definitely. It’s, kind of, interesting because I think the people I coach fall into two very different camps with regard to power. There are those who are conflicted about owning their own power. It doesn’t seem quite right to them, maybe they see themselves as a servant leader and how can you be a servant leader and wield power? They don’t somehow go together for them, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And they’re hesitant to step into their ambition as well. And then I coach clients who are in the opposite of that, where their challenge with power is not embracing it. They embrace it. They just don’t yield it very skillfully, you know?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: They’re like the bull in the China shop running around telling everybody what to do. And so, I think either way, to our listeners, wherever you fall on that spectrum, figuring out how to embrace your power and wield it well, is so, so important. And I wanted to say, maybe, one other thing, Irvine, I don’t know if you’re going to agree with this. But my observation is that women tend, now, this is a tendency, women tend to be in the former category of having more conflict around embracing their power. Whereas men, maybe just because they’ve been at it longer historically, right? Tend to struggle less with embracing it, they’re learning edge is wielding it skillfully.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah. Actually, that concurs totally with my clients, I would absolutely agree with that tendency. And I think men don’t question it enough, it’s so imbued within them that in many ways they, actually, have to be invited to think about it. Where I don’t think that is the case with women. I think women are very clearly always very conscious about that and how it’s showing up.

Bridgette: Yeah. It’s a fascinating topic and I think one of the questions that, hopefully, we can shed some light on is how can you embrace and step into your power without making others feel powerless around you? Right? Because it’s not a zero-sum game.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: Yeah. So, that’s interesting to me. All right. So, Irvine, maybe there’s some neuroscience that can shed a little bit of light on that question. And also, just help us to be a better observer of, as you said, our own felt experience of power.

Irvine: Yeah. Well, this is one topic where there, actually, has been quite a lot of research around how does power or felt power impact the functioning of our brain. There’s a lot, so I just wanted to, kind of, throw just a few snippets, which I find fascinating. One is that those who feel power, actually, perform significantly better on tests, their executive function performs better, and those who feel powerless, actually, perform a lot worse. In other words, those who feel power are really able to engage their cognitive functions at a much higher level.

And so, when you think about that they’re also saying that those who felt power were more creative, could think in a more creative manner and more abstract. And these are some of the higher functions we expect of leaders, kind of, the visioning and the creative side, and so it’s interesting and I suppose that seems pretty logical. If you feel powerless, you’re in a lot of anxiety and you’re not functioning at your best and you’re not being creative, you’re, kind of, triggered and you’re, kind of, thinking about, where do I go next?

So, that’s pretty logical, but it’s interesting just to think about that. The other as well is, and this is, kind of, a word of warning, I think maybe for that second group you described, Bridgette, and that is that power can, actually, disengage your prefrontal cortex. And from a wonderful researcher called Dacher Keltner, from UC Berkeley, has found that power can make it harder for people to empathize with other people. And, in many ways, it impacts, we’ve talked in an early episode about the power of mimicking and mirroring neurons and power, actually, can impact that mirroring and make it less strong in people who felt very strong.

It’s interesting that there’s a vagus nerve that runs from the top of our spinal cord to our abdomen. And that’s shown to promote compassion and gratitude and appreciation, and many ways, people who feel a lot of power, that’s the deactivated. And so, therefore, we have this common thing that very powerful people, at times, is they have struggled to get to know them and, kind of, how they feel, et cetera.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And there’s something going on within the brain that, see that is very true. And so, therefore, the question is, well, what do we do? How do you help, kind of, leaders who feel this sense of power and how do you help them? Because we know engagement is key and critical, and I think a third piece of research can help us with this. And that is that those who are really taught to shine focus on the needs of others and to improve the social welfare of others or understand others can, actually, overcome that deficiency. And one of the ways is to think about where you came from, your own roots. To know that before you had this power as well, you, probably, had struggle.

And so, what we find is that leaders who are able to focus in these areas can, actually, turn on some of that empathy again and lessen some of that impact of feeling powerful. So, fascinating research there. And I know I mentioned that researcher Dacher Keltner, and he talks in a really interesting way about power and powerlessness, the language he uses is an approach system. So, Bridgette, I know you’ve looked at that as well, what do you think of that?

Bridgette: Yeah. Well, I want to speak to that in a second, but what you just said, what struck me about it is that power is a double-edged sword, right?

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: To be a truly effective leader, we have to embrace our power because it makes us more creative, you know? And as we’re going to talk about, it helps us take risks. It helps us to lead people to new territories, right? And if we don’t do something to counteract it, it can, actually, cause us to disconnect from people, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: To lose that sense of empathy. Boy, that is fascinating. Yeah. So, yeah, the research about this approach system, I think is interesting, right? So, that researcher that you were just talking about, he also writes about how power activates a psychological and a behavioral approach system within us, right? So, if we feel powerful, we also feel free. We feel in control, we feel safe. And we’re not really attuning to or paying undue attention to threats. Actually, we feel pretty positive and optimistic. And so, therefore, what do we do? We approach challenge, we lean into it, we look for opportunities that have risk, and we feel more confident about taking them, right?

o, that’s huge. And then the reverse is true. That when we feel a sense of powerlessness in our bodies, an inhibition system is activated. It’s like a threat detection system. We’ve talked about that before; the amygdala is like a threat detection system. Well, if you aren’t in touch with your power, then you are going to see threats more easily and focus on them and, therefore, you will feel inhibited by taking on challenges, by facing-in to risks. And I just think that’s a really powerful thing to be reminded of, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Power makes us approach and powerlessness makes us avoid.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Yeah. That’s very interesting. Okay. So, Irvine, then let’s say we are not as in touch with our power as we could be, right? And so, how would that, maybe, show up in some of our behavior?

Irvine: Yeah, it’s such an interesting question. And I think, as you look at that sense of approach and avoidance, so let me just throw out a few behaviors that I notice a lot, especially when someone’s felt sense of power is not there. One is this constant comparison to others. And, kind of, you make conclusions about yourself, about how you’re doing, about how you’re acting based on others. And we’ve all done it and it’s so hard to stop it. And the problem is, it begins to drain away your power. Let me just give you an example from my own life.

So, we’re both entrepreneurs, we both have our own businesses, and, of course, you have to build a website and part of your sales outreach is that you have to find four or five people who are in your space and, kind of, like, what’s their messaging, et cetera. And, of course, you do this and it’s absolutely critical you do that, I’m not criticizing that. But boy, when you’ve come across someone else in your space and their website is better, that their message is better and you go into this whole comparison, and here you are, you started with this sense of power.

It’s, kind of, yes, I’m going to have this great website, I’m going to do this great message, and then, all of a sudden, you could almost feel yourself just diminishing before your very eyes, and it’s such a great thing because it just takes the wind out of you. And it’s such a great experience of, kind of, what it feels like to feel less power, and what that does.

Bridgette: You know what is occurring to me as you share this is that if we’re not in touch with our power, we tend to compare ourselves more ruthlessly to others.

Irvine: Yes, absolutely.

Bridgette: And then the act of comparing makes us feel even less powerful and it’s a vicious cycle.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah. Oh, it’s great. Yeah, I love that. Yeah. A second behavior, and we’ve talked about that, there’s an episode, full episode on this which you can look at, it’s one of the earlier episodes, but it’s on boundaries. And I think people who have less sense of power are really not that good at really creating important boundaries. And I think there’s a blur of boundaries. And really, what’s important about a boundary is it’s knowing, kind of, where you end, and another person begins. And sometimes when we lack power that we’re not able to create those healthy boundaries. And it means taking responsibility for your own actions, for your emotions, and really not taking responsibility for others.

And the opposite is true. When someone feels, kind of, powerful, they’re able to say. They’re able to not only create the boundaries, but they’re, actually, able to enforce them and say, no, actually, that’s something that I’m not willing to go. And I was just talking to a client, Bridgette, the other day, and they’re returning to work and we’re in the mess of this returning to work. What does it mean? How many days? This, that, and the other. And now they’re forced to drive into work. And that means, well, I was giving two hours extra in work, I can’t do that now, I’m sitting in traffic.

And they have a real great sense of their own power and they were, actually, able to have some really, going back to the episode before of courageous conversations about creating healthy boundaries that say, this is two hours that is just not available. And they were able to have that boundary conversation. And a third one, and you’ve really alluded to this one, is about decision-making. We have used the VUCA analogy before here. We have talked about, we’re living in times where there is so much volatility, there’s complexity, making decisions is just not easy as a leader.

And, at times, this comfort that we can get from having all of the data, and I’ve analyzed everything and I’ll make a decision, that’s just not our reality. And, at times, we have to make a decision with, maybe, 60% of the data. And people, I think, who have a lesser sense of their own power, I find that very difficult. I think we worry and fret about getting it wrong. And not only that there, but it becomes very personalized. What does this this say about me if I get this wrong? And I think someone who has a greater sense of personal power is able to say, well, if I get it wrong, I try again and it’s okay.

Bridgette: Wow.

Irvine: Yeah. And I think how they approach that is very different.

Bridgette: It’s like, is there anything that our felt sense of power doesn’t impact

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. Totally. It really does. So, Bridgette, would you add anything else to those three?

Bridgette: Oh, well, I guess as you were talking, one thing that comes to mind is this issue of confidence and where does the source of our confidence come from? When we’re in touch with our power, it, sort of, comes from the inside out. And when we’re not in touch with our power, we look to others, right? We need constant reassurance and affirmation from others. And that, of course, then makes us feel even less powerful, that vicious cycle going round and round. I think also people who feel less powerful undervalue their time, their expertise, their contributions, they undersell themselves.

And consequently, they often don’t feel confident advocating for themselves, they just don’t have enough confidence and a sincere appreciation for their own value. Again, it goes back to like, do we overvalue our self or undervalue our self?

Irvine: Yeah, yeah.

Bridgette: And our felt sense of power has a lot to do with the answer to that.

Irvine: Yeah,

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: All right. So, gosh, could it be any more clear that stepping more fully into our power is so essential for our happiness, for our success, for our capacity as leaders, but how do we do it? How do we do it? And you mentioned something at the beginning about the body, that there’s a connection between power and our bodies. So, speak to that, Irvine.

Irvine: Yeah. So, it’s interesting, we have talked a lot here about cognitive, and we’ve talked about cognitive states, emotional states, and so the question is just about how we think and we feel, and I think not. Is power just in our heads. And really, when we think about how we talk about power, there is a physicality in that, we talk about being a force of nature, we talk about firepower and horsepower and nuclear power and power cords. So, there’s this sense of physicality, and we are physical beings. So, it is not surprising therefore, that power shows up in our own physicality.

So, as you’re listening to this episode now, just stop what you’re doing and just look at your body and just notice how your body is. And if you had to describe your body at this moment, how would you describe it? Are you relaxed? Are you tense? Are you out for a walk? Just notice, get in touch with that physicality. So often we have this physical vehicle, and so often in the world of work, we appreciate what’s from the neck upward. And we’re disengaged, at times, from what’s below our neck, and it’s so critically important.

Now, one of the most popular Ted talks that has ever been produced is from a researcher from Harvard called Amy Cuddy. If you haven’t watched it, please do. But she’s trying to get at this question about what does our sense of power show or how does it show up in our bodies? It’s interesting, she goes through the whole animal kingdom and she talks about how in the animal kingdom, how power and body language shows up as dominance. So, it’s one way, and how dominant shows up in our body is we become bigger. So, in other words, when you think about it, about people who feel powerful take up more space.

Bridgette: They certainly do.

Irvine: Absolutely. So, when you think about, if you’ve ever seen a gorilla or something, kind of, beating the chest and, kind of, taking up, I grew up in a pub, I think many people know. My father was really great about knowing, kind of, maybe when an argument was going to happen, when someone felt powerful over another, and they puff themselves up and they, kind of, feel more powerful. And that’s part of that reaction of feeling taking more space. And the other is also true as well, when we feel powerless, we take up less space. We diminish ourselves; we want to hide, we want to disappear.

And what Amy Cuddy says is really interesting, when we’re interacting with, there’s another person, there’s a complementarity going on there, that one person takes up more space, and then the other person as well can take up less space.

Bridgette: Oh, interesting.

Irvine: Actually. So, we have to really be on guard about that. And then the other key thing that so often, I think we miss, is that we’re used to thinking, I feel a certain way and my body expresses that. But what Amy Cuddy also asks is that interesting question is, does our body drive how we feel and the mood that we’re in? And I think we can say that. And I do a lot of work around emotions. And what we know is, when something nice happens, we feel happy. When we feel lost, we feel sad. But if you, actually, configure your facial muscles into that emotion, you begin to feel that emotion, so our bodies can also drive how we feel.

So, knowing that, Bridgette, how might we be able to use that in this notion of using our bodies into, perhaps, feeling more powerful, especially at times, when, perhaps, that’s not the way we feel.

Bridgette: Yeah. Well, listening to you, I just started practicing taking up more space physically, right?

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: So, I opened up my legs. My stance is a little wider. My hands are on my hips, my chest is open. It was a good reminder. But one thing I want to share that I also think is very interesting is that men and women are socialized very differently around this. And so, at first, if you look at toddlers, boys and girls take up a lot of space. They run around, they jump; they don’t have any problem taking up space. Their parents wish they would take up a little bit less space. But as they get older, apparently around middle school, girls start to close their bodies down and fold in. And young boys start to do the opposite. They start to unfurl and take up even more space. Which I think is interesting.

Irvine: Oh, fascinating.

Bridgette: Yeah. So, for those of us as parents, that’s so important to pay attention to. And, yes, so to your point and your question, Irvine, there are some really simple things we can do. We can remind ourselves to do these. We can teach our kids to do these, right? And it’s all about taking up more space with your body. And so, one of the things that feels, actually, really energizing and is easy to do, and most of us sit all day long, is just reach around the back of your chair and clasp your hands together, which forces your chest to open, right? Boy does that feel good. I’m even doing it now and I’m standing and it just feels really good.

And then to remember then with that throughout the day, particularly in conversation, to keep the chest open. Because that takes up more space and also telegraphs connection and confidence, we’ve talked so much about breathing. A lot of this comes down to breathing more deeply, which also opens up our chest and allows us to sit or stand tall. So, I think that can really be powerfully centering and, kind of, remind us of our felt sense of power. And then I think this is really interesting. Not to just take up physical space, but take up temporal space.

What does that mean? It means that when you’re talking, if you’re really anxious, or if you’re watching somebody else talk who’s really anxious, you might notice they talk [makes babbling noises – 23:18], they get really fast and then [makes babbling noises – 23:20], and there are no pauses. So, pause, and allow there to be space. That telegraphs confidence and power, right? We’re taking up temporal space. Would you add anything, these are all really great, Irvine, anything?

Irvine: They’re all really great. One of the things in which I love what you just said about, kind of, the stretching of the chest as well, to realize that the voice is, well, so often our sense of power or powerlessness is expressed in our voice. Just hearing someone, we can sense. And I think for powerful voices, two things are needed. One is space. We need space for that oxygen, which we’re breathing. So, we need oxygen and we need space for that oxygen to reverberate. And so often if we’re closed and we’re not breathing fully, then you have a double whammy and our voice is weaker.

So, just the expansion of our body and breathing can really help our voice, and just to realize as well, we carry so much tension in our jaw, in our shoulders, just to stretch there, and that can really improve the quality of the voice that we have. Now, this is all great, nothing we’ve said is rocket science here, folks, we all know this. Here’s the problem, we don’t do it.

Bridgette: Right.

Irvine: And so, I have a client who uses her phone. Now, the phone is a blessing and a curse. Here’s the curse of the iPhone, or any phone, any mobile phone. If you ever notice people when they’re reading their phone, they’re hunched over it. It’s awful. We go into a powerlessness pose when we’re on our phone. So, kind of, if you’re reading the phone, kind of, extend it in front of you, kind of, try and avoid, kind of, that closing in as you look at your phone. But what she does is she sets a reminder every hour, it’s a little, kind of, a reminder, it’s an app. And it’s just this buzz, and she just does a check-in on her posture. And I love it. It’s just, kind of, this little posture check-in that becomes a habit.

The other thing as well, a client does, of course, we’re so used to having all of these zoom meetings or even in-person as well, we’re around a table and we just, it’s exhausting and it’s exhausting for our bodies. So, what they try and do is they try and have walking meetings or a standing meeting, is there a way that we could have a quick meeting that’s standing? So, change that posture. And she said, I’ve really noticed. She said, there’s an energy around it that is very different from a seated meeting. So, I love that idea.

Bridgette: Very Interesting.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: The phone, now that has really struck me, Irvine, because you’re right. When we’re looking at our phones, we are hunched over. And how many times a day are we looking at our phones?

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: That’s if we’re in our phones. And I never really thought about how just that shapes our body into a smaller, more closed up posture and space. And then how does that affect our sense of felt power?

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely.

Bridgette: Ah, I love it.

Irvine: And we do it so often. It brings to mind, I love the fact that my client, there’s a little bit of ritual. And it is creating ritual, creating a practice that can, kind of, give you a greater sense of power. I grew up playing rugby, and it may be a sport that not many people are fully aware of, but if you ever Google or YouTube, Google, the All Blacks, they are the most powerful rugby nation on earth, They’re from New Zealand. And they have this amazing Maori tradition, it’s a war dance.

And so, basically, they do this ritual before the opposing team, and, of course, they make all of these faces, et cetera. But it’s, actually, a really powerful embracing of your inner power; of, kind of, calling forth this power from the earth that we approach this game powerful and intend to intimidate the others. But it’s this ritual and it got me thinking that we should have a ritual in our lives as well, that we should have touchpoints where we are constantly monitoring this body that we carry that impacts how we show up, that impacts our sense of power and to really trust our bodies and to trust the message that our body is saying.

Bridgette: That’s really so fascinating. Well, we’ve already shared some really great, I think practical tips, but do you, Irvine, have one more, sort of, practice you might leave listeners with?

Irvine: I want to try this one. This is one that I use with clients and they really enjoy it. So, what I do is I invite you to stand, to stand up. And if you are comfortable to close your eyes. I just want you to go into the storehouse of your memories. And one of the things we know about our memory, is that memories that have emotional components or personal components, are the strongest. So, I want you to come upon a memory where you felt in a moment in your life, incredibly powerful or proud, something happened that you’re just so proud about.

And I want you to go into that memory. What was happening? What are you seeing? What are you smelling? What are some of the colors around that memory? How are you feeling? What were some of the emotions? Just feel that pride, that sense of power over everything that you felt. And just hold that and just hold how it feels. And as you come out of that, just be aware of how your body’s feeling and the little nuances that are happening, how you may have changed subtly in your body. And when I look at people, I do this in training. When I look at people, all of a sudden, I’ll feel people standing a little taller. I’ll feel them being a little open; I’m seeing smiles on people’s faces. And so, these are amazing touch points that can really help us.

So, every day we have transitions, and maybe if we’re transitioning into a situation where, perhaps, we don’t feel as confident, we feel a little powerless. To, actually, activate that memory, to activate the power of that memory and to remind our bodies of how we felt in that experience can really be helpful as we go through the threshold into that meeting, perhaps, or that conversation or whatever it is where we’re feeling a little tense.

Bridgette: That’s lovely. Thank you for that. I do feel different, as you were walking us through that. I noticed I felt more grounded and more connected to my feet and my legs and I don’t know, just my whole body, sort of, relaxed very naturally into a more open posture. That’s great. Well, Irvine, this has been a fascinating conversation, I have a lot of connections being made. I do think that power is a double-edged sword, as we’ve discussed, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And so, we need it, we have to embrace our power as leaders, because as you shared with the neuroscience, it makes us more creative. It makes us more open to risk-taking. It triggers an approach system within our psychology and within our behavior. And yet, power can cause us to disconnect from people too. We can lose our sense of empathy with others. And in a powerful presence, sometimes others start to feel less powerful, and that’s certainly not what we want.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, we have to work on embracing our power and staying connected to others. And at the end of the day, and we’ve said this before, sometimes the simplest way to make a powerful change is through the body. Right? And to take up more space. It’s a shortcut. It’s a powerful one. And it works. So, thank you so much, Irvine, for this conversation. And to our listeners, if you know of somebody who is a leader and who struggles to get their relationship with power just right, share this episode. And what’s on top for next time is certainly something that requires us to be in touch with our power. And that’s the art of self-advocacy. How do we become a potent advocate for ourselves? So, that’s what’s on tap for next time. Irvine, thanks, as always, for your conversation and for your thoughts. Loved it.

Irvine: Likewise, Bridgette. I appreciate it.

Bridgette: Take care, everybody. Bye-Bye.

Irvine: Bye now.


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