Book Review: "How to Hold Power" by Pavini Moray, PhD

Our series Leadership in Social Change explores books and resources that grapple with the challenges and opportunities in nurturing transformative leadership in our efforts towards social change. For this edition, we take a look at How to Hold Power by Pavini Moray, PhD. 

Contributor: Ned Howey

“Leading is hard. Everybody thinks you sit around making calm, cool, informed decisions, but you know the truth.”

How to Hold Power: A Somatic Approach to Becoming a Leader People Love and Respect by Pavini Moray, PhD is a book that should be required reading for anyone who gets a promotion to management, starts a business or an organization, or otherwise needs to lead when they might not themselves fully know how. The book is one of the best and most utile guides for the experience of actually leading we’ve ever come across. (And was the inspiration for us starting this series). 

While written for an audience of team managers, the advice held within is perhaps even more relevant for those of us who in some way lead others in the social change world. Of particular value are real examples and practices that address challenges for those of us outside identities and histories of privilege - those who aren’t gifted leadership advantage in a world of structural oppressions and who carry additional challenges of historical disadvantage, cultural resistance to leadership in our environment, and trauma. The author's description of their own journey into leadership as a non-binary, trans, and queer person is one that resonates deeply with those of us coming from marginalized backgrounds and working in social justice, and many will easily see themselves reflected in.

“I grew up with no good role models of power and leadership. All around me, the examples of leadership I saw were corrupt, exploitative, and fraught with massive ego. Many of us had parents who denied our humanity while turning a blind eye to the trauma we were experiencing. We had unreasonable teachers and school principals who didn’t care. Armed drug dealers who sold us meth, telling us not to worry because it “wasn’t crack.” College professors who played favorites and slept with students. All the sleazy and unkind bosses we had at minimum-wage jobs. I had friends who enlisted in the military, were abused by their superior officers, and were sent into armed conflict….Yep, everyone who had power over us completely sucked. Power was terrible, and those who had it were heartless jerks.”

They describe the resulting folly that ensued in taking leadership: “Just because I was in charge, that didn’t mean I knew how to wield power with grace. At first I didn’t acknowledge my new organizational power. I didn’t feel any different. I still felt like me.” They go on to describe how they had to learn “how to embody my strength responsibly instead of harming my employees by insisting I was one of them. I had to develop the body of a leader.” 

While most leadership books approach leadership from a purely analytical perspective - speaking to grand ideas and noble actions - this book takes a unique, pragmatic, and deeply hands-on approach: a somatic view of leadership which squarely puts leadership not only as an experience of the mind or inspiring words, but one of, and within, our bodies as leaders. Dr. Pavini speaks to a review of two dozen leadership books, among which they only found three pages total acknowledging that leaders are people with bodies. And yet, as they note, “[y]our leadership does not arrive with your job title. Your leadership comes when you become a body your employees [or supporters] wish to follow…your presence, your groundedness, your ability to listen, your capacity to be with complexity, your ability to communicate with clarity, your decisive action.” 

The book aims to help leaders and aspiring leaders grow into the challenges of leadership, through body-based practice rather than just the head, creating lasting change from “your stories, your practices, and how you live inside your body.”  It covers the concepts of embodying leadership through the specific challenges of leadership in action including addressing trauma and triggers, somatic boundaries, consent, listening and navigating conflict. 

The book offers practical and real practices about the process of embodiment - how we connect and lead through our bodies, including somatic exercises focussed on visualization, breathing and body recognition. 

While it speaks predominantly to the role of individual leadership, we believe there are direct insights that can also be applied to group leadership. Embodiment is a concept that not only can exhibit itself in the form of an individual body but a group of people as they work together in collective action. 

Notes and Insights: 

Our favorite insight: Leaders are Present, Not Urgent

“You have likely succeeded because you have a high capacity for handling complexity. When others need to stop and rest, you have developed strategies of perseverance and grit that enable you to continue. These are admirable qualities in a leader. However, every strategy has both costs and benefits. Your tenacity is likely rooted in your ability to do one or all of the following: ignore your needs, push through your boundaries, dig in and endure, dissociate like a champ…The skills that got you into leadership are not necessarily the same skills that make you an excellent leader. In order to get where you are, you have likely had to hustle and grind, stay focused and exert effort. And it may be surprising to learn that hustling and grinding are not necessary skills for embodied leadership. Embodied leaders are not urgent. They are present. Your nervous system is guiding everyone you lead. Take note: they will respond to how you are more than to what you say.”

Defining Leadership 

The book describes leadership in very practical terms as mastering these behaviors: 

  • Be present
  • Collaborate 
  • Listen
  • Repair conflict
  • Trust and be trusted
  • Observe and name what is
  • Be curious
  • Envision
  • Inspire 
  • Discern aligned action
  • Set boundaries
  • Decide
  • Take action 
  • Receive support 
  • Be with discomfort 

Defining Power 

“[P]ower is both your ability to choose your response to situations, and your ability to direct or influence the behavior of others. It also includes your internal and external access to the resources you require to meet your needs.”

Types of Power

The book delves into defining many different types of power, which is particularly helpful for those of us whose work and passions are to fight unjust power differentials, while also building power for our causes. Being able to distinguish and discern these types of power, by having a language around them, is useful in knowing how to wield power ethically and effectively. 

Formal Power: Formal power is power given by a role, position, or title.

Informal Power (social power): 4 Types Below

  • Majority Power: derived from belonging to a majority group or identity 
  • Systemic: derived from laws, policies, customs or institutions (established for the benefit of a particular group)
  • Relational: comes from who you know and access you have to people who have any type of power
  • Experiential: derived from your body of knowledge and lived experience 

The book also explores the difference between earned power and unearned power. This is essential for our ethical a fair application of power. 

Different Ways of Using Power: 

  • Power Over: based on domination or control 
  • Power-Under: acting in cover resistance to power structures (and seeks to be disruptive divisive, or subvert power-over) 
  • Power-With: power of collaboration and sharing ideas. 
  • Power-Within: personal power. 

Final Thoughts

"How to Hold Power: A Somatic Approach to Becoming a Leader People Love and Respect" transcends traditional leadership discourse, offering profound insights that resonate deeply with our journey to leadership at Tectonica. It not only illuminates the path through our struggles but also champions a leadership ethos rooted in presence, embodiment, and ethical power dynamics—principles crucial for anyone committed to social change and justice. This book has been a beacon, guiding us through the complexities of our mission with its somatic approach, reminding us that leadership is not confined to those with titles but essential in any of us who must call upon the actions of others to make the big needed change in our world.