“Bulldog,” Not “Bitch.” Elizabeth Warren’s Master Class For Powerful Women

Relax, this isn’t a political post. Just a lesson from a political person about women’s exhibiting strength in a way that works.

I’ve heard a lot of women say that they can’t be strong 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 and Democratic candidate for President, Elizabeth Warren. I’m not addressing her political views or prospects here. But stylistically, she exhibits a remarkable balance of what I call “grit and grace.” That blend of styles allows her to advocate fiercely for the issues she cares about, without being dismissed as a bitch. Even as her campaign for President mounts in strength, she’s managed largely to elude that critique.

How does she DO that?  

A video clip of  an early Senate Banking Committee Hearing on Bank Money Laundering is Warren’s master class on power that blends grit and grace. Watch and learn.

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’s passionate but 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.
  5. She’s humble. In an interview just this week, she was asked why she continues to stay after rallies for hours to take selfies with every single person who wants one. Her reply was simple: “It’s true that I stayed for four hours after the rally in New York City. So did the last guy in line.”

What about you?

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

  • Which of the five principles above – 1) blending passion with reason, 2) staying rooted without going on the attack, 3) not getting emotionally hooked, 4) fighting for something greater than yourself, or 5) humility – 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 any of the five 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 there? 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?
5 replies
  1. Patti Brown
    Patti Brown says:

    Excellent analysis and a great example. This makes me wonder about how do (or should) women respond to the branding from others? Currently, Ms. Warren is being portrayed by some as “bitchy” or “unlikeable” even though she balances grit and grace. Will staying the course eventually work? Does she need to exhibit more grace? And what women in the workplace?

    Reply
  2. Leslie Williams
    Leslie Williams says:

    Patti, what great questions. I hadn’t heard the “bitchy” moniker applied to Warren much. I think she’s already responding though… lowering her voice to sound less “shrill” (OMG can we get over that thing?), toning the passion down some. But I think every time a woman has to package herself to be acceptable to others, it’s a loss for everyone – whether in politics, at work, or in relationships. And seriously – can we stop holding women to a ‘likability’ standard to which we don’t hold men?

    Reply
    • Leslie Williams
      Leslie Williams says:

      Patti, what great questions. I hadn’t heard the “bitchy” moniker applied to Warren much. I think she’s already responding though… lowering her voice to sound less “shrill” (OMG can we get over that thing?), toning the passion down some. But I think every time a woman has to package herself to be acceptable to others, it’s a loss for everyone – whether in politics, at work, or in relationships. And seriously – can we stop holding women to a ‘likability’ standard to which we don’t hold men?

      Reply
  3. Pat Hamilton
    Pat Hamilton says:

    Leslie, great piece. I saw so many places where I might improve my own leadership abilities. Wish I’d known you when I had 15 people to lead!

    Reply

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