Women and Power: Finding the Leader Within

Recently, Jody Kantor published a fascinating article in the New York Times about an extraordinary, multi-pronged initiative launched two years ago by the Dean of Harvard Business School to create an exponential change in the attainment of gender equity at the business school. It was in response to the fact that incredibly talented women -- both students and faculty -- were not thriving in the male and class-dominant culture there. This comprehensive effort included interventions ranging from "assertive hand-raising classes" to technology widgets to help professors take gender bias out of grading systems. Two years later, albeit with mixed results, particularly in progress on getting more women advancing in the faculty ranks, the women in the graduating calls of 2013 have shown marked progress in grades, class rankings, honors and job opportunities. This incredible HBR case study illustrates how the journey to gender equity is so complex and nuanced.

Having been immersed in the private sector for almost four decades, the last two decades as a partner at EY, I have met many progressive companies who, like HBS, realize that progress towards gender equity has stalled and are committed to a second generation of policies and practices that will not just get women into the ranks but also to the top. (See www.centerfortalentinnovation.org)

However, this is not enough. I have found that women have to get to the center of what it means for them to have a life of meaning and purpose and to envision the leader they want to be -- at home, at work and in the world. Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter are 100% half right. Talented women stalled in their career suffer not because they don't lean in enough. It's because leaning in is not enough. I also believe you can have it all; you just can't do it all. So its critical to define what "IT" is.

For the last nine years, I have been teaching a course at Columbia University's Graduate School for International and Public Affairs ("SIPA") entitled "Women and Power." I created this course based on my experience and observations that women have an ambivalent relationship with power and ambition. Many women don't even like to use those two words, because of all the push-back they have gotten over the years and the negative stereotypes associated with those words in action.

I teach this course in order for women to fall in love with these two words. I want them to recognize that a healthy ambition is the fuel that helps you grow, take on new challenges, have the chance for accomplishment, take slights and failure less personally and live a life of meaning and purpose. A healthy ambition helps ordinary people live an extraordinary life. And power - which can come in the form of many currencies including, knowledge, status, beauty, knowledge, brand, persona, relationships, network -- is the toolkit you can draw from that allows you to be effective in pursing a life worth living and dying for.

Here is what my students have to do for their term paper:

• Declare their purpose: Why are they on the planet?
• Envision a 10-year "destination": How do they want to be known in the world -- as a leader at home, at work and in the world -- in 10 years? (Full disclosure: I have been a 10-year-planner since I was 8)
• Do an inventory of their existing power.
• Construct a two-year action plan on how they are going to increase their power and use their power intentionally to make progress on their purpose.

Although my students take many technical and sophisticated courses during their graduate tenure, year after year, many of them tell me that this was their hardest assignment.

What fascinates me is that I have worked with women at all ages -- as young as 11 as well as many of my baby boomer peers. And this assignment is both extremely hard to do as well as liberating and empowering. My takeaway is that all the cultural, societal and structural nuances that surround us has created invisible leakages of power and ambition, "death by a thousand cuts," that have ended up redefining our story of who we were born to become.

The good news is that the story can be rewritten and revised, no matter where you are in your journey. Getting reintroduced to your purpose, firing up ambition, intentionally building your power pack and sketching out a useful roadmap is the path to rediscovering the leader within.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.