Leadership Coaching – Being Empowered vs. Limited

A Coaching Power Tool By Debora Hofmann, Leadership Coach

Empowered vs. Limited Debora Hofmann_Coaching_Tool

At the end of last year, our family had to move back from Beijing, China to Frankfurt, Germany. That meant a move across continents in the middle of a pandemic that neither was planned nor wanted by us. It was a huge challenge for me to walk alongside our kids through these tough months following the move, helping them through their emotional ups and many downs. It also meant that we had to face many more months of lockdown, as Germany was finding it much more difficult than China to gain control over the virus.

Here are a few of my thoughts from that time:

  • I don’t want to be here.
  • I don’t want to be the stupid mum that is stuck at home having to care for the kids and everyone is just assuming that I’ll keep doing this while business travelers don’t even need to quarantine or need to have negative tests results for staying in a hotel.
  • The measurements are not enough/don’t make any sense.
  • Germany has no idea how to bring this virus under control.
  • I don’t have enough time for anything important to me right now.
  • It will stay like this forever.
  • School staff is stupid and they are not able to organize the easiest things.

It was in this very challenging time that I tried to write my research paper on limiting beliefs for ICA and there were a couple of times when my research was speaking directly into my situation. For me, the big realization was: These thoughts are LIMITING to me, not so much because they were untrue or because there is no evidence for them. They are limiting to me because they are NOT HELPING me to move forward or making it any easier to find my way. Since realizing this, it almost became a habit to try to find new perspectives in my thoughts that are helpful and empowering for me.

Here are a few thoughts, perspectives, and action steps that have helped me:

  • I forbid myself to complain about the measurements. It felt like wasted energy because I realized that I couldn’t do anything about it anyways. Conversations were sometimes interesting because some people didn’t have anything else to talk about. But I started to like the challenge there.
  • I focused on the stuff that was in my zone of influence, stuff that I was able to change or at least do something about it.
  • I searched and looked for the benefits of this time like a lot of flexibility, hardly any social obligations, having an unbelievable amount of time with my 13-year-old son, establishing good habits like regular running.
  • When I got frustrated with my kids’ school, I tried to decide whether it was better to contact someone from school and try to change it there, or if it was a chance to teach my kids to cope with challenging teachers and situations.

For me, the difference between a limiting and an empowered mindset became very obvious.

Empowered vs. Limited Explanations

“Limited”:

Restricted in size, amount, or extent; few, small, or short (Oxford Languages)

“Empowered”:

Give (someone) the authority or power to do something (Oxford Languages)

Both definitions sound like someone else is in charge of our life. And that was very true for me. I did feel like I was the victim of a really big company that wasn’t willing to find a way for us to stay in China. I was the victim of a worldwide pandemic. I and the kids were the victims of overstrained teachers and we were victims of a government that had no idea what to do. I blamed people and situations for my misery and that gave them a lot of power over me. I allowed them to limit me in what I saw and what I felt was possible for me to do. And yes, they did limit me in many ways. But the more I was focusing on these limitations the smaller I felt.

The definition of “empowered” sounds actually like someone is giving someone else power.   Having a look at the use over time graphic (Google Books Ngram Viewer 2021), we can see that it was used about 100 years ago much more often than today, which reflects the idea that certain groups were limited and restricted in their rights. Someone else had to give them rights and “empower” them to do things.

In Coaching, clients are seen as resourceful and capable and that they don’t need someone else to empower them. They need to do this for themselves. Our job as Coaches is to support them in this process.

If they do feel limited and not in charge of their life, which shows up in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, they can change this perspective. They can stand up and give themselves the authority to do something. Or, as the unbelievable successful Coach Marie Forleo says: “The power isn’t out there, it’s in you.” (Forleo 2019)

My coaching niche is female leaders between 25-40 years. To identify someone as a leader, this woman doesn’t have to hold a certain position in an organization. Instead, I follow Brené Brown: “I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who dares to develop that potential.” (Brown 2018)

With that definition in mind, I could also say: My coaching niche is aspiring female leaders.

Brown’s definition lets us think of “empowered” women that don’t wait for someone else to give them a certain position so that they can execute the ideas that they have. Instead, they take what they have and try to use it in the best possible way.

Women are still underrepresented in the workplace, especially when it comes to senior and executive positions. This makes it much harder for them to use their voices even before they have any sort of official leadership position. They easily fall into a limiting perspective about their possibilities. Experiencing discrimination because of their sex or their age (“oh my gosh, she might get pregnant in two years”) can be a tough challenge to feel empowered in these circumstances.

Typical sentences from a limited perspective, in this case, might be:

  • “I cannot make a difference anyway.”
  • “They’ll never see what I am doing.”
  • “They don’t want women to climb the latter anyways.”
  • “I have to wait till I get promoted.”
  • “I have to stay in this company for at least two years because anything else will look bad on my CV.”

Questions that I could ask while coaching them might be:

  • “What would the most empowered version of you do in this situation?”
  • “If the CEO of your company would come to you tomorrow morning and say: Hey, you’ve got permission to change anything that you find necessary to move this company forward, what would you do?”
  • “If you think about yourself in five years from now, what do you need to give yourself permission to do, so that you keep developing and growing?”

Going One Level Deeper:

Supporting aspiring female leaders to find a more empowering perspective for their current situation is only the first step. As I am coaching through the lens of storytelling we are working on their leadership story here. This is a fantastic place to start.

BUT what they will have to do at some point is to go deeper and ask about their purpose in life or more specific about their life story.

They might start to think about questions like:

  • What am I here for?
  • What bigger life story is calling me?
  • Whom do I want to serve? For whom do I want to make a difference?

When they are asking deep enough and are willing to listen long enough and find the first little answers to these really important questions, they’ll find their first few steps to bring this life story into reality, they will feel more empowered than ever before.

The Nagoski twins talk about connecting with your “something larger”. Science shows that this “something lager” might typically arise out of three areas:

  1. Pursuit and achievement of ambitious goals that leave a legacy (“finding a cure for HIV”)
  2. Service to the divine or other spiritual calling (“glorifying God with my words, thoughts, and deeds”)
  3. Loving, emotionally intimate connection with others (“raising my kids so they know they’re loved, no matter what”)

While I deeply love the idea that clients in coaching are resourceful and capable and can achieve almost anything, this can also become a dangerous perspective to have.

Probably rooted in me being the 2nd child in a lovely row of six, probably fed in my years of studying sociology, I always think in systems. Clients always exist in systems as well, they are not buzzing around in orbit without any connection to the earth.

And those systems are unfair. Although the use of the word “empowered” might have decreased over the last century we still have many marginalized and underrepresented groups in our societies and organizations. People of Colour, Immigrants, the LGBTI+ community, people with disabilities, and yes, Women in general. These groups are limited. They are limited by people acting in certain systems and doing everything to keep these systems stable. And this needs recognition in coaching as much as in therapy if we don’t want to run the risk of retraumatizing them (Varanasi 2021).

In my opinion, we as coaches need to live up to this tension: Yes, we can help our clients to find more empowering perspectives about themselves and the situations they find themselves in. We can support them in overcoming obstacles from the outside and fears within them. But we also need to address that the systems might be rigged when they try to change something and get stuck again and again. And that the fight to overcome a whole system might not be worth the sacrifice of their mental and physical health.

I am deeply grateful for the change in perspective that I was able to take over the last couple of months and I am surprised by how I moved through this last year. I had no idea how resourceful and capable I am. Noticing the deep shift in myself is something fulfilling and I feel more empowered than ever before. I hope that I can use this experience to inspire lots of aspiring female leaders to shift their perspective as well, leave their limiting thoughts behind, find empowerment within themselves and connect to their “something larger”.


References

Brown, Brené: Dare to Lead. Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

Forleo, Marie: Everything is figureoutable

Google Books Ngram Viewer: Empowered

Nagoski, Emily & Amelia: Burnout. Solve Your Stress Cycle

OxfordLanguages: https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/

Varanasi, Anuradha: Decolonizing Therapy. Why an Apolitical Mental Health System Doesn’t Work https://www.rewire.org/decolonizing-therapy-mental-health/

Original source: https://coachcampus.com/coach-portfolios/power-tools/empowered-vs-limited/

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