TalksWomen Leadership Series

Becoming Powerful and Unlocking Your Potential

Read Time:17 Minute

Ms Nirupama Subramanian, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, GLOW & Founder CEO, Powerfulife, in conversation with Ms Mythili Chandrasekar, consumer behaviour and brand strategy enthusiast. In this discussion, Nirupama shares her thoughts on what it takes for a woman to break different barriers and mindsets.

Mythili Chandrasekar: A few months ago, I heard you speaking at a forum on archetypes of women and power and about discovering your own power. You have done a leadership role and consulting and coaching with 25,000 people across 75 organizations, and I presume, majority of them are men.  What are your overall experiences in leadership and coaching? What are the big themes emerging today? Where does power fit into all this? What is the difference that you see in a woman’s path to leadership versus a man’s path to leadership?  

Nirupama Subramanian: I finished my MBA from XLRI long ago in 1994. I joined the corporate world, stayed there for some time. Now I serve the corporate world by leadership coaching. Most of my participants have been men. There are three significant differences in the leadership journeys between men and women.

The first is career intentionality. When men join work, they join with the intention of sticking through. They have to rise to the top and stay there till they retire. So it’s almost like, there’s no option. Women enter their career with much less intentionality. They don’t usually enter the workforce thinking they have to stick out there till the end. They enter thinking, “I’ll do my best. Let me give it a shot. Later on, we’ll see what happens.” That hasn’t changed significantly in the last 25 years. More women are entering now but we also see a big drop off at a later stage.

Secondly, women don’t really focus on career impact, which is focusing on building your brand, networking and doing all the things outside your core job. Women don’t do this, again, very intentionally. We have a lot of biases in our own mind about boasting and putting ourselves out. We think, “It won’t look nice talking about my achievements or I don’t want to be seen.” There’s a lot of social conditioning. Women are not as forthright in doing what is called office politics.

The third is the big thing we call as work-life balance or prioritizing. There is a lot more responsibility that women carry about domestic responsibilities. This creates guilt, conflict, exhaustion and burnout. If they get support, it’s almost like, “I’m so lucky that I have a supportive spouse; a supportive in-law. So I’m able to focus on my career.” This is the reason why many women drop off. The ‘3M’s that impact women are Marriage, Motherhood and Mobility. 

Mythili: How do you define power? How do women approach power? How can we discover our power and realise our potential?

Nirupama: Women’s empowerment is a catchphrase. For some reason, that annoys me, as it seems as though we are waiting for somebody from outside to empower us. I started doing some reading and research on power as part of my leadership development. When we say powerful, it’s usually something big and strong and being masculine. There are three kinds of power. The positional power is what you get from being a CEO, a Prime Minister, a professor or a parent.  We also get discretionary power because we are born into a particular family or a race or in a majority religion or as a male, etc. These powers can be taken away once the context changes. The third category is personal power. To become more powerful, I need to redefine what power means. I need to understand how I have been kept powerless. That is the way my work with ‘Powerful,’ started.  

 Four Ds to deny power

People, especially women, are kept away from power, by what I call the four D strategy: Deter, Diminish, Decorate and Divide. Deterrence is by using the threat of punishment. Eg. If you cross the Lakshman Rekha, you are in great danger. Not only men, women themselves do this to other women. We keep people feeling small and from doing the things they want to do, through punishment.   

The second strategy is ‘Diminish.’ People are distanced from power if you make them feel less confident. In the fairy tales, it’s always the woman who needs to be rescued. Even many learned people have said that women are incapable of learning science or doing medicine; women’s brains are smaller, they are too emotional and so cannot be effective leaders.  Micro aggressions like this make women feel they are not as capable and confident. There’s research that women don’t apply for promotions unless they feel they’re 100% sure. The act of diminishing people, unintentionally or intentionally, keeps them from power as well. 

The third strategy is Decorate. This means rewarding people for behaviors that align with what is expected of them. A woman is expected to be a good girl, an ideal Indian woman, traditional, conservative, modest, caregiving, the perfect wife, daughter or mother, an employee who doesn’t talk but sacrifices. If we are perfect, we get rewarded. If not, we are made to feel that we are good at nothing. Seeking that label of being perfect, keeps women feeling constantly exhausted. Women themselves unwittingly become watchdogs of the patriarchy. The fourth is ‘Divide.’ We always see in the television soap operas, stories of divide between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. They are never shown as bonding together. We prevent other women from succeeding and are judgmental of other women. These are the four strategies.

When I was working many years ago in Citibank, I always thought that I would not be able to manage such a stressful job if I had a family because I saw very few women role models. Later on, when I continued working after my daughter was born, I felt guilty. After my daughter fell ill, I felt very guilty that I was not at home. So I quit my full-time job because it was so ingrained in me that I had not been a good mother.  

The archetypes

So what are the options? What can we do? This is happening to us on a daily basis. So one of the sources I found was what we call archetypes. I read a lot about archetypes from the work done by Carl Jung and Freud. Archetypes are nothing but stories and patterns.  We know how a hero has to behave. We know how a mother has to behave. So archetypes are very strong images and patterns that are deeply ingrained in us. They also depend a lot upon culture and context. I started looking at them as sources of power and energy. In India, we do this very normally and easily. If you want wealth, you pray to the Goddess of Wealth—Lakshmi. Saraswathi is an archetype of knowledge. Because most of the work has been done by Western men, I wanted to bring terminologies that Indian women could relate to and draw power from, especially since there have been so many biases and stereotypes around these archetypes.

The six feminine power model

I want to share a model, which I call the ‘Six Feminine Power’ model. When I did interviews with women and through my coaching work, I saw there were six distinct archetypes. I have given them names that connected with me and which a woman can easily connect to.  The six archetypes are: Kanya, Apsara, Veera, Rani, Ma, and Rishika. 

Kanya is the good girl. She is loyal, optimistic, devoted, beautiful, responsible and positive. She is the epitome of the good daughter and good wife and she is a very powerful person. But the flip side of Kanya is, sometimes we see her as weak, suffering and not asserting her authority. We believe Sita was powerful, but she still needed somebody to come and defend her. This energy or power, at the flip side, makes us feel lost, submissive and docile. It might not help having too much of this energy.

On the contrary, Veera, is the warrior energy, the energy of being bold, courageous, having fighting spirit and taking risk. But historically, this has not been an energy associated with women. We’ve had very few women warriors. In our mythology, women were not allowed to fight. Draupadi never went to war. Only last year, the National Defence Academy allowed women cadets. We need Veera to be leaders, to take leadership positions and to take charge of our lives.  Similarly, all the other sources like Rishika (The wisdom seeker), Rani (The noble queen), Ma (Nurturing caregiver) and Apsara (The seductive beauty) can be strong sources of power for us. But we have stereotypes and biases that prevent women, for example, from accessing education.

Avvaiyar had to wait

I have a 21-year-old daughter and am very proud of her. She was brought up to think no less of herself than a boy. When I speak to some of the girls whom we support, we still see that when the family has limited money, they would rather educate a boy than a girl. So it continues till today that the pursuit of knowledge or wisdom is not something women should aspire for. In my book, I have spoken about the story of Avvaiyar. As a young girl, she wanted to go into a spiritual mode and write and sing songs. She couldn’t do that as a young girl. She got married, became an old woman and only then pursued her Rishika energy.

We feel that women cannot be beautiful and intelligent at the same time.  I created a psychometric assessment tool which is the only validated psychometric assessment for women in the South Asian context. You can take this and find out what your powers are. I am a high Rishika and I have a lot of Kanya. Interestingly, I found my Ma energy a little low. After this self-awareness, you can start working to actively build your power, which you feel you need in a particular situation. 

The power of wholehearted living

We can do that through affirmations and by changing our mindset to self-belief. We have to work on the body to feel confident and powerful as well. I’ve been doing yoga for nine years and I find it very useful in taking very specific actions. You can access your personal power, even if you don’t have positional power, to take up leadership roles. You can become a leader in your own mind and start seeing yourself as a powerful person. Martin Luther King says that power is the ability to achieve purpose. For me, power is wholehearted living, where I can live truly feeling and honouring all my strengths and qualities. So this is a framework for women to access their power and overcome any roadblocks.

Apsara is the energy of being openly expressive, as seen in the dancers, the celestial nymphs, the free spirits and people like Marilyn Monroe. They are flamboyant. An interesting personal story is that my apsara energy was quite low. It was very easy for me to write my book ‘Powerful’ because of Rishika energy. But it was not easy for me to market it. I really hesitated to get onto Instagram or social media till last year because I don’t want to do videos. But I have a purpose and I want to take this message. So one of the things I started doing was becoming more active on social media by accessing my apsara energy and overcoming the blocks that I had. So more and more women and of course men can know their power and find out how they can support the women in their lives.  

Mythili: What is the fundamental belief in this model?

Nirupama: Be true to who you are and your core power. Access other powers as needed for you to be more successful, happy and less stressed.  It is about achieving the optimum balance.

Mythili: Can you give us some more examples?  

Nirupama: Recently, I have been coaching a leader who happens to be a woman. She was having a lot of trouble managing her team. We found out that she was very high on Ma energy and she was very care-giving and nurturing. She used to be very relaxed and lenient with her team members. She would keep on their work on herself, thinking that this was her role as a leader. She was not getting the results that she wanted as she was overdoing it.  She did not take care of herself and was going through burnout.

We suggested that she needed to balance her energy. She shouldn’t give up her empathy, compassion and caring nature but she needed much more of veera energy to be able to take charge and speak up for herself. She also needed apsara energy, which is focusing on self-care. The Ma thinks that caring for self is selfish and she will be valued only if she gives enough value for others. The leader picked up a lot of physical health issues and the team was getting out of hand. She felt very panicky and started micromanaging, which is the extreme of Ma.  She was equating her self-worth with doing things for others, which was not helping her beyond point. We told her that taking care of herself did not mean she was selfish.  

Sometimes, you can adopt a persona like the late Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha did. In the political world, she couldn’t afford to be seen as kanya and apsara. She embraced ‘Ma’ and adopted the larger than life persona of Amma. It was a very conscious shift in her thinking, body and behaviour, because of which she could be successful and effective in her new role. You have to do it mindfully and imbibe internally the energies that you need to succeed.

Mythili: If there are parallels for men, would they be very different? 

Nirupama: King, Warrior, Lover, Magician and Sage are all male archetypes. We’re looking at the five Pandavas as five archetypes. Interestingly, there is no strong caregiver in the male archetypes. The father is usually seen as the authority, stern patriarch, provider and protector. 

Mythili: How do you multitask? What were the lessons on leadership and power in the way that you navigated and managed to do so much?  

Nirupama:  In my journey, having clarity on my values and needs was very important. I did my MBA. I was a typically good, ambitious girl who wanted to get a good job. For me, success at that time was money and status and being associated with a big brand—Citibank. I was quite proud of that. I realized it wasn’t giving me that much joy. Through the next few years, I became a mother as well. I spent some time thinking about what was important for me.

It was a dream for me to write books someday. I wanted to do certain things that gave me joy and enabled me to use my skills.   I definitely needed to earn my own living. My husband and I were batch mates in MBA.  I always saw us as equal in size. 

Once I had clarity on my values, prioritising was the next important thing. I’m lucky because in India, we have people to whom certain tasks can be delegated. I’m fortunate to be in that socio-economic strata when I have somebody to clean the house and somebody to cook. I decided I will not get into that. I do not want to be a perfect homemaker.  My family needs to be fed and my house needs to be reasonably clean. That was a call I made. I delegate things which don’t give me joy but which can be done by others. That’s how I manage.

The third thing is, I am very mindful about my time. Now I get paid for the number of days I do coaching or number of coaching hours. Sometimes I have to make a very mindful choice: ‘Yes, this one week is for vacation and it is for family time. It’s okay, if I’m not working at that time.’ So it’s about making mindful choices. There’s never a perfect work-life balance. Especially, after the pandemic, we have to look at work life integration.

The last thing is that I seek help and support. I was not very good at doing this early on in my career.  I would hesitate to ask people for help and want to do everything by myself.   

Mythili: Beyond getting economic independence using your skills, what do you see as your calling or mission?

Nirupama: For me, it’s to live in my full power and enable other people, especially women through my work of coaching, facilitation and writing. My writing is a means to help people to stand on their own.  

Can a woman who has fear of losing the job work with courage?  

That’s a tough call. One has to be very clear about one’s order of priorities and values. If your self-respect and self-esteem are at stake, I think it’s very important to be courageous, because you cannot sustain a job where you feel diminished or disrespected. It is not going to be emotionally or mentally healthy for you to be in a situation, where you’re constantly feeling that way.

The second is the belief that it’s not a thing that you are going to do it on your own. Have the belief that you will have a support system. If not this job, you will find something else that is going to work for you.  Find out who is your source of courage and support, a role model who’s a source of inspiration that you can draw upon. Reach out and talk to people so that you can get the courage to go ahead. Very often in tough situations, we forget all the space that we have. It’s the veera energy that is needed. You may have to awaken the sleeping warrior in you.  Speaking up for yourself, especially in today’s world and environment, is important, rather than suffering in silence.

You spoke about work-life balance. Many times, women take it on themselves that the household or the children are their responsibility and do not allow men to help them in these domains. How can they come out of this mindset?  

It goes back to the fear that many women have that they will be considered as good mother only if they are good home makers and caregivers. Fundamentally, that mindset needs to shift. A lot of women don’t have any other identity, especially if the person sees herself as a homemaker and a mother. She sees those roles as particularly important and so she doesn’t want to give that away. A husband who wants to help his wife succeed, can tell her that she will continue to be a good wife, mother and a home maker, even if she gives away a part of her job and then let her tap into what other dream she has.  

When we pursue our passion, we are always told to proceed with caution. This has resulted in a fear of failure. How then can we pursue our passion?

True. This is what I call the deterrent strategy. Many girls are told that they can do whatever they want only after marriage. The first thing for us is to make sure our dreams are bigger than our fears. Look at what will be the impact if you pursue your passion. What are all the good things that you can do, if you pursue your passion? Imagine and visualize the kind of world and life you will be living if you didn’t have that particular fear. It is very important to create a visually compelling future picture.

Secondly, address the very specific fear. What is the worst and the best that can happen? The best should ideally be more compelling than the worst that can happen. If you give it a shot, you will have learned something. People will say, “At least you have tried rather than living a passionless life.”  If you redefine your failure as a learning opportunity, then it will not look so terrible. I published my first book only when I was 39 years old. I didn’t win the Nobel Prize or whatever, but I’m so glad I took the risk of rejection and failure. I can proudly say that I published three books. Just go for it

Power is intoxication. But power is a state of mind. How do you enhance this concept in Indian women?

Power does have negative connotations. And especially for a woman, we say that power goes to her hair. You have to redefine power. It is the ability to be who you are and do what you want, of course, adding value and living your purpose. That is the balance that our power should bring. In fact, I would say that with power comes greater responsibility and with greater power comes greater responsibility.