I’ve heard a lot of women say that they can’t exhibit strength at work without being branded as bitchy or aggressive. I get where they’re coming from. Organizations can be pretty punishing to women with a direct or forceful communication style. In addition, organizations often allow men to exhibit much more intensity than they would ever tolerate from women.

And yet…  I have also observed powerful women leaders who do not get labeled, judged or ‘killed’ for their strength. What do they have in common, and what are they doing differently from the rest? They seem to be the leaders who have the best stylistic blend of grit and grace, wielding influence with neither apology nor intimidation. As a result, they’re able to exercise power in a way that commands respect and sways opinion.

One of the best examples of this kind of woman leader is Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren. She’s a fighter with a remarkable balance of grit and grace. That blended style allows her to advocate fiercely for the issues she cares about, without being dismissed as a bitch.

How does she DO that?   

This clip – a 2013 Senate Banking Committee Hearing on Bank Money Laundering – is Warren’s master class on power that blends grit and grace. Check it out.

What can we learn and apply from her example?

Based just on this video clip, Senator Warren exemplifies several key principles that we can apply in our own contexts.

  1. She balances passion and reason. There’s no doubt that she cares about what she’s saying.  Her voice is animated, her body is leaning in, and her questioning is pointed. Yet her content is factual and her arguments are well-reasoned.
  2. She doesn’t allow herself to be pushed over, but she never goes on the attack. She came to this hearing with one central question: “How big of a crime does a financial institution have to commit before it faces getting shut down or before someone actually goes to jail?” In response, the panelists weave, dodge, obfuscate and redirect. But she returns, over and over, to her central question. And she does so with grace-laced language: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you. But I’m not hearing your opinion on this.”
  3. She doesn’t get emotionally hooked. Two male panelists did something that a lot of women have experienced – the men assumed a paternalistic tone toward Warren, and tried to explain “the way it works.” It’s a classic move to imply a lack of competence and understanding on Warren’s part. Each time, she replied clearly but without defensiveness. She quickly dismissed the implied slight: “Sir, I understand the limits of your organization’s authority, and I have read your full testimony.” And then returned, with an even keel, to her inquiry. “But are you saying that you have no opinion on how much drug money a bank can launder before it should be shut down?”
  4. She’s fighting for something greater than her own interests. Whether or not you agree with Senator Warren’s positions, she seems like a values-based leader, not driven by ideology or personal interests. Part of why Warren’s grit works is that it seems to arise from authenticity, rather than gamesmanship.

What about you?

Can you recall a situation where you “brought the grit” but neglected the grace?

  • Which of the four principles above – 1) blending passion with reason, 2) staying rooted without going on the attack, 3) not getting emotionally hooked, and 4) fighting for something greater than yourself – did you not bring to bear in that interaction?
  • How did that feel inside?  How were you received by others?
  • How might you have worked with the four principles to bring a more blended and effective form of power in that situation?

Conversely, recall an interaction when you felt that you expressed yourself in a way that was both grit-full and grace-full.

  • What was your impact here? How did it differ from your impact when you only brought grit forward?
  • What reminders, images or practices can help you balance grit and grace when you want to express yourself in a powerful way?