Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

An illustration of a stick figure woman struggling to carry a large glowing ball of red haze.
Power is really heavy, really red, and really watercolory. Credit: Amy J. Ko

I don’t know how to wield power

I am, by my nature, a passive person. I’ve always been happy to sit back and let someone else decide, especially when decisions are complicated, socially fraught, or consequential. There’s really nothing about me that seeks to carry that responsibility any further than I have to. It’s heavy, and exhausting, and often thankless.

And yet, somehow in life, I keep finding myself with power. I remember back in my first year of college, for example, joining a meeting of the student chapter of the ACM, the Computer Science club on my campus. There were a few seniors and a few first years, and after a brief stint hosting the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest in the fall, the seniors graduated, and suddenly there were just a few of us. We all waited for someone else to volunteer to lead. No one did, and so I volunteered, having never really led anything before in my life. I was pretty good at it. I organized pizza and gaming nights, I created new ways for undergraduates to teach, I organized our physical space, I created community. All of this was against my strong instincts to follow instead of lead, and though it scary at times, I survived.

I remember my first day as a faculty member ten years later, walking into my new office, and thinking: “So I’m just responsible now? For students’ education? For spending grant money wisely? And no one tells me what to do or checks?” I wasn’t a professor because I particularly wanted all of this responsibility—I was there for the intellectual freedom to explore and share. For me, power was the price to pay for having that freedom. So I wrote down my visions, I raised funding, I discovered things, I advised doctoral students, I mentored undergraduates. I didn’t want to be in charge, but I was in charge—of me, and others, and budgets, and hiring decisions, and more.

After earning tenure, I remember coming back from my startup in 2015 and my dean asking me if I’d chair our undergraduate program. More power and responsibility was the last thing I was looking for. I had just finished two exhausting years as a Chief Technology Officer, and manager of several engineers and designer. What I wanted most was a break from power. But that annoyingly conscientious voice in my head said, “You’re a great fit for this role! You’re responsible for helping our undergraduate program achieve excellence! And you’d be good at it!”. So I said yes. And that first year was an exercise in power: I set admissions policies, redesigned our curriculum, made guest faculty hiring decisions, spoke with other leaders on campus and at other universities on behalf of the school. I wasn’t doing this because I wanted any of this power; it was offered to me, and so I felt responsible for using it wisely.

As I settled into my role as Associate Professor and Program Chair, I also started sharing more of myself online. I wrote tweets, I shared blog posts, I expressed my opinions in faculty meetings more often. I came out as trans, very publicly, desperately wanting to socially transition as fast as humanly possible. Somehow, I went from having a few dozen followers on Twitter to more than 10,000. None of this writing or tweeting or online advoacy was about getting power. I just wanted to share my thoughts and feelings, talk about things I care about in academia, and make room for myself in my communities. But somehow, just being vulnerable and visible led to power too.

And finally, this academic year, I find myself finishing my first year as Professor, which I appears to be about as much power as professor can have without joining a full-time administrative role. No one really gave me a roadmap for what these new Professorly powers would be, but they quickly became clear. I help decide who gets promoted and tenured, writing a lot of letters evaluating Assistant and Associate Professors. Because of this, what I say seems to have far more influence over what others are willing to say and do than ever, because for better or worse I strongly influence their job security. And this also seems to leads people to fear me more. All of this is probably bound up in the strange dynamics of my minor social media fame, which creates an awkward asymmetry between me and my community. Earning this rank and achieving this visibility wasn’t about gaining any of these powers—it was about earning respect for myself and money for my family. But here I am, with more power than I ever imagined I’d have, and therefore more responsibility.

As a reflect on all of this accidental and unintentional power, one striking thing is invisible the transfer of power has been. Many of the forms of power I’ve gained only roughly corresponded to a title I’d earned or some order of magnitude of followers. The only real signals I was getting power were subtle. For example, after years of introducing myself in every conversation with a stranger, people started interrupting me and saying they knew who I was. Similarly, after years of trying to advocate for change in my schools or communities, suddenly people started advocating to me or asking me to make a decision. At no point did anyone ever sit down and say “Here are your new powers and responsibilities, and how to use them wisely”. It was up to me to notice that I had new power.

The other striking thing is how the amount of support and guidance I get for wielding power declines as I get more. As a Ph.D. student, there were countless workshops and conferences to support me, offering mentorship, guidance, and tips. And as junior faculty, I had peers with whom I could get mutual support and senior faculty mentors whom I could ask for adv. But once I was an Associate Professor, most of that support disappeared. There was a year where I attended a quarterly workshop for academic leaders on how to lead inclusively. But it presumed I already knew how to lead, and so I pretended I did. There was a 1-hour panel luncheon where some other academic leaders talked about their tips for responding to demands for change. But beyond a few short term events, all I really have are a few peers, who all seem too busy to chat about how to hold all of this power we have, let alone use it to make change.

The dwindling support made me realize it was up to me to create my own support. For a while I met with one of my counterparts in a related unit, but that was mostly coordination, not mutual peer learning. Perhaps the most helpful experience was attending the CRA Snowbird conference as a panelist, where I learned through lurking on senior faculty gossip at lunches. Sometimes I meet with other academic program chairs and we chat. And so aside from a few organized events and informal chats, I’ve mostly had to teach myself through lots of failure and reflective practice. There really haven’t been any people reaching down to lift me up, and the increasing burden of pulling others up to where I am.

Aside from the isolation that comes with power, one of the most challenging aspects of wielding it is knowing whether I’m wielding it well. I feel clueless about when my words or ideas do harm, because everyone is too afraid to tell me. I’m rarely sure if my decisions are good, because good decisions often just leads to silence, rather than praise—but moderatley bad decisions also lead to silence. Asking for feedback often doesn’t help, no matter how anonymously its gathered, perhaps because people have the smallest bit of fear that it’s not anonymous, or perhaps because they expect I don’t need it, perhaps because I seem to know what I’m doing.

I clearly don’t. I’ve written tweets that have harmed relationships in my community. I’ve communicated in ways that can make other leaders bristle. I push back against decisions I disagree with in sometimes hostile ways. I decide things unilaterally that should have been shared decisions, and I share decisions when I should have just decided. For every choice I make with my power that seems to be so well planned, communicated, and implemented, there’s another that’s a bit of a mess, that confuses people and erodes trust. Holding power is a minefield of thankless, silent successes, chaotic conflict, and everything in between. Being trans doesn’t make any of this easier—I really don’t know any other trans academics in the same position as me, and so I get to deal with all of the intersectional challenges of holding power mostly alone.

All of this makes it quite clear why people with power make so many tragic decisions and communicate so poorly: they’re often doing it without any feedback loop, without any skills of building good feedback loops that overcome these disincentives to share, usually without any thanks, and often punishing consequences for when they make mistakes. How a leader reacts to these conditions can shape everything. For example, in my case, I find that I lead with a awkward combination of vulnerability and confidence, which seems to make people confident in my decisions, but also leaves a room for critique and failure. That works best for me, since I really don’t know if I’m making good choices, I really do need feedback, and it sets an expectation of imperfection, for me and my communities. But other personalities seem to lead out of a dismissal of critique and a devotion of procedure. For example, consider chair Michael Wellman’s recent oversight over the sexual harassment and assault by University of Michigan CSE faculty Walter Lasecki. Wellman’s response to outrage and trauma was to ignore, dismiss, and criticize it. Who was guiding him in his decisions or giving him perspective on his communication? What training did he receive to respond to crises and demands for change? If it’s anything like my experience as a leader, there was probably no one giving him guidance and he received no training.

I don’t mean for this to be a pity party for the powerful—having power is a wonderful privilege and an honor in so many ways. Despite my innate desire to not be in charge, being in charge makes me feel useful and purposeful. And when I really do make good changes and decisions, and I’m sufficiently vulnerable, people do write me with thanks. Those little bits of affirmation and gratitude go a long way in helping me overcome the daily exhaustion of being responsible. It reaffirms that the values, principles, and purpose that drive me to lead are the right values, principles, and purpose.

But the isolation and lack of mentorship and learning for leadership does make me wonder: how can we possibly ever make change if we don’t figure out how to grow and support great leaders, who know how to both wield power and share it? Building these supports requires an explicit recognition that preparing people to wield and share power is in important part of systemic change, and such preparation requires intentional investment. At least in academia, we’re quite far from any such investment.

This brings me to my final point: wielding power, and even more so, sharing it, requires time. Time to listen and learn, time to gather feedback, time to make decisions, time to evaluate the outcomes of decisions, time to plan communication. And yet, time is precisely what people with power don’t have. Sometimes this is because of urgency and sometimes it is because we don’t know how to manage our time. But more often than not, it is because of the endless backlog of needed changes. There are always decades of work to do, and only a few months or years to do it. Now matter how good I am at preparing for the unexpected, or managing my time, there will always be that fundamental challenge of wielding power: what to do with it given limited time.

All of these challenges should deter me. I should want to set it all aside and just do my own thing, without the burden of power and responsibility. It’s certainly in my nature, and it would be a lot easier. There are three things that seem to drive me to lead anyway. First, I have a restlessness I have that compels me to action; that often ends up leading to power whether I want it or not, especially when I’m in groups with others who are less inclined toward action. Second, I have a devotion to my values that give me purpose; I wake up in the morning and the first thing I want to is make the world right. I think that leads to some kinds of power whether I want it or not. Finally, there’s a conscientiousness I just can’t shake. I just feel responsible all the time, and in ways that really aren’t sustainable. I see this in my mother has well; she’s constantly sacrificing herself for other people’s benefit, as if she’s responsible for everyone around her. Maybe those three together are what cause me to accept the power others grant me, despite not really wanting it or needing it to be happy.

So I’ll keep holding power, and learning how to better use it and share it. And I’ll keep making mistakes. And I’ll keep trying to find support and guidance, and offering it whenever I can. Maybe one of these days all of those driving forces in me will dull and leave me back where I started: a quiet and meek follower, happy to wander where others go. But not anytime soon.

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.