The University Record, June 7, 1993

Want to win? Choose your battles

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

The dilemma between leading and being liked usually bothers women more than it does men, Elizabeth Poage Baxter told a group of about 70 women who gathered in the Michigan League’s Henderson Room May 2, for a presentation on leadership models for women.

But even when women overcome the nagging sense that seeking power isn’t “nice,” and that exercising power is unattractive, they must surmount a number of other obstacles—internal as well as external—in order to become influential, according to Baxter, who is coordinator of management development training for the U-M and author of Building Power: The Art of Influence.

Based on a study she conducted as part of a doctoral dissertation to identify the thought patterns of Fortune 500 executives, Olympic athletes and other archetypes of American success, Baxter outlined various types of power and the traits of influential people.

Her insights triggered a flood of personal stories from audience members, with one woman after another volunteering tales of influence subverted and power denied—by male managers at work and by husbands at home. “I notice it most in meetings, when I make a suggestion or recommendation and there’s a lot of sage nodding, then silence,” one woman said. “Then, within minutes, a guy says the same thing and the response is entirely different. People are saying, ‘Yeah, I like it’ and ‘Great idea.’ ”

“Before we pillory half the population in their absence, let’s remember we do it to each other, too,” Baxter noted after a string of similar comments and questions that suggested the depth of frustration felt by women attending the presentation. “Women dismiss the plans and ideas of other women. We second-guess our own.”

Baxter went on to outline the varieties of power found in contemporary organizational life. The most familiar is “position power,” the power conferred by a title. “But for most people, men or women, moving up the organization is impossible,” Baxter said. “The career path doesn’t exist the way it once did. But there are alternate pathways to alternate kinds of power.”

One kind is “expert power”—being known as good at something so everyone consults you on that subject. Another is “favor/debt power”—helping others out then calling for their help in return. “Personal power”—the ability to engender good will and respect, or command attention, by virtue of your personality—is a third.

Baxter sketched in the characteristics of powerful people. They’re oriented toward making things work, not wasting time figuring out why things went wrong. They’re realistic, seek responsibility, tolerate ambiguity, are persistent, independent, willing to make decisions and take action. They expect to win. “One of the best ways to win,” Baxter concluded, “is to chose your battles.”