A somatic educator and entrepreneur advocates for a leadership style that incorporates the wisdom from one's body.
Leaders and managers everywhere are learning the importance of creating safe, satisfying workplaces rooted in principles of social justice. But navigating the demands of the role can lead to burnout, especially for those new to leadership.
Somatic educator and coach Pavini Moray argues that the key to being an ethical and inspirational leader is rooted in our own bodies. In this excerpt from Chapter 5 of How to Hold Power, Moray uses a metaphor to illustrate the challenges of leadership and redefine the meaning of power.
Inhabit Your Power!
I'll let you in on a secret: I have a tail. And if you’re a boss, you do too. We have huge, massive dragon tails. The problem is that we don’t even know it most of the time. Imagine walking down the street while behind you is a wide swath of destruction, wrought by your tail. Small cars, delivery vans, entire garbage trucks are gone. It doesn’t stop there. If you slow down and look, you’ll notice that the whole town where you live has been demolished. Lives destroyed. Fortunes abandoned. And all because you have this colossal tail that you’re dragging over everything without noticing the impact.
Creating mayhem and destruction was pretty much my experience of becoming a boss. Becoming a leader wasn’t just added hours and responsibilities; the thing I somehow missed was the power I suddenly had. But just because I was in charge, that didn’t mean I knew how to wield power with grace. At first I didn’t acknowledge my new organizational power. I didn’t feel any different. I still felt like me.
One day, after receiving some harsh feedback from an employee about my lack of management skills, I had a session with my somatic coach. I described my confusion to my coach. Why was my employee acting like I was “the Man”? Why did they expect me to take care of their needs? Why were they pissed about the lack of internal communication in the company? My coach gently explained to me the phenomenon of my tail. She said I had gone from being a regular old human to a mighty, giant dragon overnight. My employee was angry because I was the one with the power in the situation, and they expected me to use it accordingly. In other words, they expected me to behave like a leader—because I was one!
Coming into power can catch you unawares. Like most folks, you’ve been living your life, complaining about bosses, watching as they messed up. Now suddenly you’re the one people are watching. They complain about you! Coming to know your own power and directing it skillfully takes some doing.
People in Power Suck...
or So I Thought Until It Was Me
I grew up queer in a Rust Belt town at the end of the Reagan era. No one was teaching my friends and me how to be emotionally fluent. No one said, “This is how you feel yourself.” We learned to feel the edges of our bodies at punk shows, in filthy underground venues, through a fog of cigarette smoke and cheap beer.
As hardcore bands took the cramped stages, we slammed our bodies into each other in the mosh pit. We committed to feeling something, anything, through the violent pounding and stomping. Injuries abounded, but so did care. When one of us would sneak up onto the stage and then dive off bravely into the crowd, the rest of us would catch them . . . most times. They would float on the top of the group for a few moments, then be gently brought back down to the ground. We cared for each other in our outsider community because no one else did.
I grew up with no good role models of power and leadership. All around me, the examples of leadership I saw were corrupt, exploitative, and fraught with massive ego. Many of us had parents who denied our humanity while turning a blind eye to the trauma we were experiencing. We had unreasonable teachers and school principals who didn’t care. Armed drug dealers who sold us meth, telling us not to worry because it “wasn’t crack.” College professors who played favorites and slept with students. All the sleazy and unkind bosses we had at minimum-wage jobs. I had friends who enlisted in the military, were abused by their superior officers, and were sent into armed conflict. I watched friends die, as if they were an expendable resource. Yep, everyone who had power over us completely sucked. Power was terrible, and those who had it were heartless jerks.
After all those poor examples of people in power, I knew I could do it better. Part of starting a company was proving that people like me could hold power. You know those people who don’t have kids but who have plenty of opinions about how everyone should parent? That was me when I started my company. My organization would deeply respect each employee! Treat our workers with care and kindness! And pay them well! I thought I would know exactly how to do it all right after spending my life watching everyone do it wrong.
With that dream in full swing, I totally missed it when the power tail sprouted. I didn’t notice that there was a new appendage trailing behind me, bursting with untrained strength. Before I knew it, I had left a trail of hurt and angry people in my wake.
When you first step into being a boss, everything is unprecedented. You’re learning to lead, and you’re doing it in front of an audience. Your employees are watching—and being affected by—your every move. One employee in my company who left early said, “Yes, I understand that you’re learning to be a boss. I have compassion for that. But I don’t want to be your guinea pig while you learn.” Fair enough.
Your tail only becomes an asset after you learn to operate it. Once you’ve embodied your power, you can use that tail to shelter and protect those in your care. You can skillfully demolish, leverage, rebuild, and wield your authority like a boss boss whom people love to work with.
If you are a boss, have ever been a boss, or think you might want to be a boss, you have my most profound respect. Leading is hard. Everybody thinks you sit around making calm, cool, informed decisions, but you know the truth.
Your job is to create an environment where employees feel safe enough to be productive. You must create a satisfying work culture so they want to stay. You have to retain your talent while meeting your revenue goals. Also important are your own satisfaction and joy.
As a boss, I have evolved from my young punk days of assuming all power was terrible, and I’ve realized that power is not inherently bad at all. You just need to know how to use it with skill. You can hold power responsibly, sustainably, and confidently without being a tyrant. We badly need influential leaders who can guide humanity to a more sustainable way of life.
Now is a crucial time if you have recently sprouted a dragon tail (i.e., been promoted to a leadership position). You’re trying to learn to lead in front of everybody! Those you’re leading are watching you out of the corner of their eye: will you do a good job? Or will you be another asinine manager who makes their jobs and lives more difficult?
What Power Is
The crux of this book is how to hold your power with skill and grace. To effectively embody your power, you must first have a good understanding of what power is. This next part may be a bit heady, but your head is part of your body, and having an understanding of power and power dynamics is essential to your leadership.
So what exactly is power? The typical definition of power is the authority to change an outcome or influence others. Another definition of power I learned from Miki Kashtan is that power equals access to internal and external resources to meet needs. So here’s my definition: power is both your ability to choose your response to situations, and your ability to direct or influence the behavior of others. It also includes your internal and external access to the resources you require to meet your needs.
People want to have power so they can meet their needs. Having power gives you access to meeting your needs. That’s pretty simple. You can obtain power in lots of different ways, and likewise, you have lots of choices about how you use it.
More broadly, having power means you can effectively use the influence you have access to. You wield authority based on personal certainty. You develop the confidence to make effective decisions for yourself and others. You build tolerance for taking risks. You believe you know a good path forward, and you effectively communicate that vision to others.
From How to Hold Power by Pavini Moray, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023 by Pavini Moray. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.