Acknowledging disempowerment when you’re a “bullet-proof” person by Katy Tuncer (guest)

I've often observed a paradox in very senior leaders:

 A.      They are working too hard, feel disempowered, and are struggling to escape a victim mindset BUT

B.      They are definitely "not a weak person" …so they MUST deny/ignore A!

They try to be and show everyone how bullet proof they are, and this feeds the very circumstances leading to their disempowerment. When we become disempowered we feel that we have limited personal control over events. The impact can be more stress, unnecessarily hard work, inefficiency, and distance in key relationships....

Typically, my clients come to me for coaching that focuses on hard business performance rather than “the soft stuff”, and this might be skewing my sample of course, but I wonder how many other coaches help clients deal with this paradox again and again?

I often notice that clients first communicate a feeling of disempowerment when they talk about a persistent complaint, for example:

  • The work is piled on me, I have to do it myself

  • Someone is being overbearing

  • My position doesn’t allow me to show what I’m really capable of

  • Someone else is cheating, it’s not fair

  • I’m being exploited and unappreciated

  • Etc

What I’ve observed is that conflating vulnerability with weakness shuts the door firmly on taking action to address disempowerment. If we are deeply committed to never showing weakness, and we think this means never showing vulnerability, we are stuck with the need to show that we are powerful all the time. We truly end up believing that disempowerment doesn’t apply to us, and we simply cannot address something we do not know exists.

As we know, the first step is acknowledgement, and only then can we get to practical actions (and I’ve shared a few of these at the end).

How do we help a “bullet-proof” senior leader identify what they’re putting themselves through?

I’ve tried a few approaches and here is what I have found has worked, but I’m looking forward to hearing other ideas too.

1. I share and talk from personal experience.

I can think of countless occasions in my own leadership journey when I'm acting the tough, senior leader, playing the "I'm bullet proof" part whilst feeling dreadfully sorry for myself when people (predictably) try out their bullets on me!

“Two members of a team I am running have a major fall out and accuse each other of bullying and incompetence. I wade in, I try to help each one to see the other's point of view and both respond with aggression towards me. I work harder and harder to deliver the outputs of the team myself while the pair battle it out with zero productivity. I'm resentful; how don't they realise I'm the one suffering here? The lesson is that until I acknowledge that I'm not bullet proof and that there is an impact on me, the pair will remain oblivious.”

My own insight is that if you act bullet proof you attract bullets. 

2. I invite clients to look at their own underlying mindsets.

I talk about other great leaders who have made a shift to overcome disempowerment and see if this triggers ideas for my clients.

“We like to tell stories of great leaders overcoming adversity. But imagine working twice as hard and being half as effective because you created the extra struggle yourself? Person X played the hero and worked himself into the ground with insufficient recognition, while spinning out a narrative about how he just had to do everything himself.  Then he identified an unconscious commitment he had: that he must struggle to make himself valuable and important. And he realised (after some uncomfortable struggling!) that he was routinely creating conditions for himself that required a heroic struggle.” “Is this you?” I ask.

3. I do a deal with my client to just trust me and try it out!

One high performing client who I was working with to increase his satisfaction at work and avoid burnout, pushed back really hard on how necessary everything he did was. At one point I even stood up and said, "Ok keep it how it is, you don't need me." Eventually though, he agreed to try out a first step, and he chose a small task (in this case giving a member of staff some direction on a major website development programme) and promised to make it effortless. In practice, he avoided revisiting decisions, he saved the time he might have spent ranting about the problem to others, and he kept the conversation short. He was then able to use this success to identify where he was adding unnecessary effort around other bigger areas of work. For him, the breakthrough in overcoming disempowerment was to see things as effortless. 

However we get there, I often find a breakthrough moment is when clients stop confusing impact with effort. Impact is what we make happen in reality. Effort is how hard we try. Following this acknowledgement, then they can start to address disempowerment….

Seven tried and tested actions

Please note that I’m coming at this from a very practical perspective. Let me share seven actions that I’ve seen clients take that very quickly give them power to lead and make a difference once they acknowledge disempowerment. For some, a number of these actions can work like switches, the insight leads to action and change happens overnight. For others even the same actions may need a lot of practice and repeated commitment when it doesn’t go right first time. Well maybe this is for further discussion in another blog!

  1. Be a stand for something. What do you want to achieve? What kind of person do you want to be? Drop the complaints and create a vision for yourself and your workplace.

  2. Get in action. What can you do, right now, that will get you moving? Can you make a bold offer or a bold request? Then acknowledge and celebrate what you did (whatever the outcome).

  3. Be honest about what you are scared of. What happens if you fail? Yes, that word sounds bad, but how bad is it really? Remember the expression “better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all”? It’s true. Failure doesn’t mean a thing (expect that now you know more than you did before). Can you accept that?

  4. Know that in (almost) every situation you have a choice. Yes, you do. You choose your job, you choose where you live, you choose who you work with, you choose what you say “no” to, you choose who you delegate to. Don’t fight me on this one. Things works better when you accept that you have a choice in everything, and then you can be powerful in your choosing. (Although I recognise that many of us are very deeply committed to things being tough, as it helps us to feel valuable.)

  5. Listen and relate to the people around you; consider them as being good people. Be generous in your opinions. Everyone around you is human (believe it or not!). They have their own issues, dreams, fears… We can waste a lot of time fighting, disliking, and moaning. Just give it up.

  6. Say “No” to some things. Nicely. Acknowledge the request and the impact of your “No”. Be clear why you are saying “No” (for example, what can you say, “Yes” to instead?). And don’t say that you are sorry if you don’t mean it.

  7. Be honest about what you are pretending. See how freeing and empowering it is to stop pretending that you are 100% committed/brilliant/honest or whatever. See how much energy you get back.


To connect with Katy Tuncer you can email her at 

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Katy Tuncer is a senior management consultant with extensive experience and a strong reputation for work in strategy-led, individual and organisational transformations, across a wide range of organisations and industries.

Katy is a McKinsey trained consultant and accredited executive coach (APECS), with a strong and diverse track record of personal leadership – e.g. entrepreneurship, army, police, community programmes. She is currently a Partner at a specialist sports consulting firm, and is a global expert on women’s physical activity.

She was recently listed as one of the BBC 100 Women and also won a Prime Minister's 2016 Point of Light award for her community volunteering.