We need to talk about power.
Like, get into the nitty gritty details on what we believe about power, how we move around power, and how we see ourselves in relationship to power.
We need to get really clear on how we define it so we can truly understand the impact that our definitions of power have on our beliefs and actions.
There are too many examples of people in power who still have a dated and toxic view of power while others struggle to see themselves as powerful.
Our relationship to power impacts our choices, as children, when we set out to have careers, and in our relationships with others.
My guest today showed me how we–especially those who identify as women–have a harder time embracing power versus empowerment and how our incomplete definitions of power welcome the more palatable empowerment lens, but fear or reject the true roots of empowerment.
Kelly Diels is a thinker, teacher, and "development coach for culture makers".
Over the last 10 years, she has worked with NY Times best-selling authors, national and international feminist organizations, and thousands of online entrepreneurs. Her research & frameworks are designed to help you get out of shame and into power — so you can make the difference you’re dreaming of in your business, in your life, and in our wider culture. Her approach is grounded in her training as a political theorist and feminist theorist. She is the first in her family to graduate from university. Parenting five children who are black has given Kelly a ringside seat for the bias, discrimination, and harassment they live with on a daily basis — and the anger, anguish, and grief drives her to use whatever resources she has to change our cultural systems.
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Kelly Diels: We are under-using our power, and power doesn't have to be gross. It can be delicious. It can be power with other people. It can be power to create amazing outcomes. It can be the inner source of power that gets us through hard times. It can be the inner source of power that allows us to be generous and loving and sharing with other people.
Rebecca Ching: What does power look like to you? What does it sound like or feel like? I learned early on that power, like power suits and politicians and executives, felt like an asset worth more than any salary, and it sounded like abuse and betrayal. In DC, I learned power and reputation were the commodities people treated on access, information, deals, more so than salaries, as government salaries are usually lower than corporate ones. In my work in New York City in the advertising scene, I saw the power millions of dollars had to shift the power of what we call to the, quote, “opinion elites” in Washington, DC, who many of our campaigns targeted. My psychotherapy and leadership work over the last two decades focused on helping people reclaim their personal power, especially when it was taken away through betrayal, abuse, and systems that abuse their power.
Like many, I’ve spent the last several years reevaluating and deconstructing many of my beliefs and worldviews, and in this deep reflection, I realized my views on power, for most of my life, missed some important components and left my understanding of power incomplete.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
All right, y’all. We need to talk about power. Like, get into the nitty gritty details on what we believe about power, how we move around power, and how we see ourselves in relationship to power. Now, I’m seeing how we need to get really clear on how we define it so we can truly understand the impact that our definitions of power have on our beliefs and actions.
I see too many examples of people in power (I mean, just turn on the news these days) who still have a dated and toxic view of power, while others still struggle to see themselves as powerful. I know I pursue power to help me feel safe and more in control and more connected and have more choices. I also push back against power almost for sport. I lasered in on how and who used power to do harm and made that a focus of my energy, and to be honest, in many ways it was a discharge of my own pain because I saw power as an adversary more than an asset. My relationship with power impacted my choices, right as a kid, in my career (I mean, hello careers in politics, advertising, psychotherapy -- I mean, power), and also in my relationships. Gosh, most of my career has been focused on helping people heal from abuses of power.
When I look back on that earlier part of my career, I pursued work that focused on power as a means to persuade and impact change on a larger scale. Working in power centers like DC and New York City drew me in as I sought to make a difference. But I did so from an incomplete and burdened understanding of power (a power I saw as bad and brutal and oppressive, and something we needed to overcome). Power had a negative connotation to it because of how I experienced it used on me and how I witnessed so many people I admire fight for more power, often at great costs.
Now, these deficits in my definition of power became clear to me in today’s Unburdened Leader conversation. My guest today showed me how we (especially those who identify as women) have a harder time embracing power versus empowerment. Noting our incomplete definitions of power welcome the more palatable empowerment lens but fear or reject what’s at the root of empowerment, which (of course, duh) is power. This reframe landed big time and brought to light I still have some stealth views on power that are not fully integrated into my values and my actions.
You know, further reflection brought me back to my foundational training as a psychotherapist. I pursued this career to help people change at a grassroots level, one person, one family, one organization at a time, and, okay, also to continue to heal my own wounds and struggles due to power abuses, right? In my training as a psychotherapist, I learned to identify the power structures inherent in all sorts of relationships. The reframe of power in today’s conversation helped me connect the dots with my lens to change and more wholly embrace power as generative, not just in power-over ways. Today’s guest helped me see how our presence and choices can actually be healing on an even deeper level as we seek to push back on the harmful ways power has been used in our lives by using our presence as a part of generative change.
Now, Kelly Diels is a thinker, a teacher, and a development coach for Culture Makers. Over the last ten years, she’s worked with New York Times best-selling authors and national and international feminist organizations, and thousands of online entrepreneurs. Her research and frameworks are designed to help you get out of shame and into power so you can make the difference you're dreaming of in your business, in your life, and in our wider culture.
Her approach is grounded in her training as a political and feminist theorist. She is the first in her family to graduate from university. She’s also parenting five children who are Black, and that’s given Kelly a ring-side seat for the bias, discrimination, and harassment they live with on a daily basis and the anger, anguish, and grief drives her to use whatever resources she has to change our culture and systems.
Pay attention to when Kelly unpacks our relationship with power and empowerment, and don't miss Kelly’s mantra reclaiming the power that others have shamed in us. Listen to Kelly sharing when she was confronted by her friends for being too harsh and how she responded by saying she was appropriately outraged (this is one of my new favorite responses now), and notice Kelly’s reframe on being told she’s high-maintenance and how that helped support her high standards that supports her values and boundaries. Okay, y’all, have your notebooks ready or your Notes on your phone queued up for this conversation to capture the deep wisdom shared by Kelly in this, yes, powerful conversation.
I have a noise disclaimer for you all. This conversation was recorded while we had real life going on -- kids, dogs, doors, you name it. The talented producers at Yellow House cleaned up a lot of it, but some of it is just gonna be there, so thank you for hanging in there and sticking with this conversation. It is worth it. Now, please welcome Kelly Diels to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Kelly, welcome to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Kelly Diels: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here.
Rebecca Ching: I was mentioning to you before we started recording, I'm a devotee of the weekly email you send out called the Sunday Love Letter, and it really is a very generous email. It’s a teach-in, and you really model generosity. I learn about different people, what’s going on in the world, and also just I could tell your deep investment into the topics at hand but also how well-researched and you cite things. So, just wanted to give a big plug to the Sunday Love Letter. But there is this quote in one of them from this summer where you said:
“When we’re talking about leadership, we’re talking about power, and the power I’m interested in is invitational, shared, motivational, reproductive, sustainable. Power can be generative and beneficial for everyone involved rather than destructive to the ones it is used against. Everything that gets used against us can be a source of power.”
Phew. So, this lens of power is not something many people are familiar with as power is often seen as something more destructive than generative. So, please, walk me through this lens on power and how it differs from conventional wisdom.
Kelly Diels: Okay, so, I want to start with the word empowerment. If you notice in most of our self-help or feminist pro-women spaces, we love talking about empowerment, right? I used to make a joke saying empowerment is like catnip for a sensitive, thoughtful woman. That’s something that we’re all deeply attracted to, and yet we don't like the root of that word. Most of us have a really negative relationship with power. When we say something like, “I want power,” everything in our body might recoil, but when we say, “Empowerment,” it’s like mm, we lean into that. What is that? And yet they're the same thing.
Empowerment is to cultivate your power, your sovereignty, your ability to make decisions, your ability to influence outcomes, your ability to tap into a source internally that keeps you going in times of trouble, right? So, the root of empowerment is power, and yet, we are afraid of power.
I have this theory about that, and I think it is because most of us who have non-dominant identities whether that means someone is racialized, whether that means someone is racialized as non-white, whether that means someone is a woman, trans, queer, disabled, all the non-dominant identities. When we have that identity, we are intimate with power being used against us. Our lived experience predominantly is going to be people and systems and structures attempting to dominate us. And sometimes that can even flow straight into abuse. And so, our first-hand lived experience and our main experience with power is with it being used against us to harm us, to squash us, to limit us, and to control us. And so, that is the dominant experience in our culture, and I think it’s the cheapest, least-skilled use of power. It’s actually really easy to bully someone. It’s really easy to set up structures that limit people’s lives, and it’s the least-skilled use of power, but there are many different forms of power.
Many of us know how to love and nurture and care for people. That’s a form of power, right? That’s invitational. That’s generational. That’s something that grows other humans instead of squashes them and limits them or harms them or inflicts violence upon them. And so, I actually think our culture is actually pretty power illiterate.
I think we only have one main understanding of power, and it’s the least-skilled, cheapest form of power. It’s domination. And what we need to do is expand our understandings of power and the way that we practice power to understand that there are many forms of power and that some of us are really seriously, because we’re afraid of power, because it’s been used against us, because we’re uncomfortable with it, because we associate it with dominance and abuse, we are under-using our power, and power doesn't have to be gross. It can be delicious. It can be power with other people. It can be power to create amazing outcomes. It can be the inner source of power that gets us through hard times. It can be the inner source of power that allows us to be generous and loving and sharing with other people.
So, that’s what I want us to do. I want us to steward our power effectively and cultivate the skilled forms of power. Caregiving is a skilled form of power. Collective action is a skilled form of power. Being internally resourced and able to weather hard things and settle our nervous systems and leverage our nervous systems to create amazing outcomes is a skilled use of power. I want us to be able to walk in a room, diagnose the power dynamic, and when it’s being leveraged against us, be able to shift it.
And one of my friends, Meghna Majmudar, she’s an executive coach and a diversity and inclusion expert who works with some of the most significant leaders in the world, she talks about us being power fluent, and this sort of speaks to what I’m saying is I think that we are only associating power with negative, unskilled uses of it. Therefore, those of us who have had that experience are, then, underusing our power. We’re hesitant to embrace power because we think it’s negative. So, I want us to understand there are many different kinds of power, I want us to understand how to use it, and then I want us to use it to create whole new realities in our own lives and in the wider world.
Rebecca Ching: Power fluent.
Kelly Diels: Meghna Majmudar, she’s an amazing person.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, no, I’m really sitting with that, and it’s interesting. I was even working on some copy for my new website, and we were working on power, and I‘m like, “Well, maybe we need to be careful with that word because that might scare some people,” and now I’m gonna, like, “Nope, we’re going there. We’re gonna go back and do that.”
It’s interesting, too, you wisely touch on the fact that power is scary to so many because it’s been used against, and we think, “Oh, no, if I embrace power, that’s who I am, and that’s not who I want to be.” So, then, it’s creating a broader spectrum of power. How do we do that? How do we expand the definition of power and how do we really cultivate power with instead of power over?
Kelly Diels: I want to come back to something that you mentioned at the beginning of this call, and you said -- you quoted me, thank you -- that everything that can be used against you can also be a source of power. That’s something I tell people all the time. It’s one of my personal affirmations. Everything that’s been used against me can be a source of power. So, how we start off is by using shame as a treasure map. Everything that you have been made to be ashamed of about yourself is a hidden source of power. That’s why someone tried to shame you for it.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Kelly Diels: So, for me, I’ll give you a really concrete example. I live in a big body, and I have been shamed across my life for being fat or overweight, and there are stigmas used against me. And so, I could look at this as this is something that’s limiting my life. Other people’s bias or prejudice against my body has limited my life, but what I know to be true is because I live in this body and have all of these different experiences, I know things about our culture that someone in a thin body or a straight-sized body doesn't know.
I have access to information that most people don't have, and my livelihood is literally based on ideas and information and creativity. So, anytime I have access to information or ideas that other people don't have access to, that is a power position, and so, any place where creativity and fresh information and new ideas are valued, if I’m at that table, I am a big asset.
So, this is a source of my power. This is why my work resonates the way it does or why I can come up with all these new ideas and why I can think of things differently and connect dots that other people haven't yet because I have access to information that other people don't have. So, I would encourage everyone listening to us to literally get forensic about this and write down all the things that you’ve been made to feel ashamed of and flip them. How are they sources of power? How are they assets? How can you use them to create new realities?
Rebecca Ching: I’m loving this because so many people that are healing from their traumas and their difficult life experiences feel like they need to exile that, but how they survived, how we all have survived actually cultivated creativity, some killer instincts, and some abilities to read a room, and to adapt.
Kelly Diels: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: And how to really focus on that and actually fine-tune that as a skill and not just a survival technique, but how it’s gone from just kind of something what we call in pathologizing called maladaptive.
It’s this adaptive way, and then to really go deeper in it, not out of fear, but out of, wow, now, without even thinking intuitively, we can walk into a room and read it a certain way and scan things a certain way or problem-solve a certain way without any effort because of years and years and years of having to adapt to survive. Now, how do we use that as something that actually is a skill, that actually is power and powerful. I really like that, and the shame map, while I sense a lot of people are like, “You want me to go walk through all of my shames, Rebecca?” [Laughs] And I’m like, “Yes, please.” But that map from kind of a forensic perspective, like you say, it really does operationalize it and we can look at it, step out of it instead of being so in it so that we can actually lead those parts of ourselves and those skills that we’ve acquired. I love this. I love this.
Kelly Diels: It’s like a toggle. You know how we toggle back and forth on screens between windows?
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Kelly Diels: We can do that with information and the experiences that we’re in. So, we can have a direct personal experience and then we can just take a beat and toggle out or zoom out and just look at it from a different perspective. And so, let’s think about shame. When we’re feeling it, it’s hot, it’s sweaty, we have a nervous reaction to it, and if you can just pause and take a breath and remind ourselves shame is a treasure map, and think X marks the spot where someone tried to bury your power. They tried to shame you for it so you wouldn't use it.
Rebecca Ching: Wow. Yeah, it’s to say, okay, let’s go through these tough experiences and then realize what were people -- oh, they're trying to squash my light, what we have called too much, right -- being too much. What was too much, right? Well-spoken or objecting to harm being done.
Kelly Diels: Or too sensitive because you picked up on signals you weren't supposed to pick up on.
Rebecca Ching: Or joyful even, you know?
Kelly Diels: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: Whatever that may be. Oh, that…
Kelly Diels: Even abuse, right? Like, I was an abused child, and someone was trying to make me keep a secret, and I felt ashamed for a long time of what was actually happening.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Kelly Diels: And that shame was actually a source of my power. If I had actually told other people what was happening, I would have had the power to end it, and that’s why this person tried to shame me away from using my voice because he knew I had power. If I used my voice, this whole thing would end. So, every place where we’ve been made to feel shame, there is a source of power there where we can create a different reality.
Now, I’m not gonna blame myself as an abused child for not using my voice. I’m just saying, as an adult, that person put shame on me to prevent me from using my power.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, yeah. Shame doesn't like light. It doesn't like power. Yeah, and you touched on this. I don't know if this is the memory that you want to take me back to, but I’d love to have you take me back to a time when your relationship to power started to shift from what happened to you to what you can do and even have to do. What was that turning point?
Kelly Diels: There are many turning points across my life, right? But one of the big, significant ones was when I was 11 years old. I went to the library literally every day in the summer, right? I was sort of a latchkey kid, tried to fill my time, so I went to the library every single day in the summer, and I discovered Ms. Magazine, and I started reading Ms. Magazine, and I literally read every edition of Ms. Magazine in that library. I was obsessed, and what I learned about when I read Ms. Magazine was that there was a thing called sexual abuse and that it was very common. It happened to a lot of girls and women around the world, not just girls and women, people of all genders, but it’s very, very common.
And when I read that I realized, oh, this isn't specific to me, this isn't any sort of defect in me that is attracting this treatment from a family member, this is a structural thing -- I didn't have that language of structural -- but this is a thing that happens because of patriarchy, because of the way the world is organized around inequity and injustice and oppressing people and turning them into resources that other people can use.
When that happened, the shame lessened. I realized it wasn't even about me, right? And it was something that happened, and that meant that there was something that could be done about it, and it meant there was nothing wrong with me. It meant that there was something wrong with the world that this was happening to little girls around the world.
The cloud lifting in that way, the shame lifting off my shoulders in that way was life-altering, and I started pushing back on him. And so, it’s a significant thing when shame lessens or when you realize that when you can think structurally, that things are not happening because you're a bad person, things are not happening because you're inadequate, circumstances around you are producing your experience, and that sometimes makes it seem like, well, then you can't do anything about it, but I actually think about it the other way. If the circumstances around me are producing my experience, that is not my fault. As soon as I’m realizing it’s not my fault, now I can click into power, and now I can do something about it. But when I’m locked in the shame spiral, I can’t do anything. So, as soon as I realize that these are structural things that happen, my personal shame dissolves and my power activates.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, that’s profound, especially for an 11-year-old. I’m thinking once we separate it, there’s this system (this is something that happens, it’s not me), and yet you and I have grown up and evolved over a time where we’re the problem. If we’re hurting, if we’re struggling, if we have doubts, if our shame is still running rampant, it’s our problem.
So, it’s kind of antithetical to what you said, but there’s been this whole movement. “Change your thoughts, change your life.” And if not, then you have a mindset problem or you’re sabotaging yourself.
And so, I’m wondering if you can speak to that a little bit because even though what you said I agree wholeheartedly with, there have been relentless messages that if you struggle, it’s your problem and your problem alone.
Kelly Diels: Right, that mindset message of, “You need to change your thoughts, your mindset is the problem, you're attracting all these things to you,” that’s the language of individualism, right? That doesn't have a structural analysis. That’s not taking into consideration our identities and how things are used against us. It’s just completely thinking in a vacuum, you know? And I do think that we do have to shift our thoughts about things, but the way I want us to shift our thoughts is let’s shift our worldview. Let’s stop looking through that lens of, “Everything is wrong with me. I’m the problem. I’m the cause of my own misery,” to, “Hey, I’m living in a world in which certain things are going to happen to me because of my identity, and that’s not my fault, and I can do something about it.” So, I think we have to shift our worldview and look at things accurately in the way they actually are. We have to learn how to see invisible structures.
So, in many of us who have non-dominant identities, there are invisible hurdles placed in front of us, and we keep on running into them because we’re taught not to see them. But as soon as you can think structurally, as soon as you change your worldview, all of those invisible structures, you can see them, and you can navigate around them with savvy. You can stop smashing into them. It’s kind of like Wonder Woman and The Invisible Jet. It could just look like there’s a woman hurdling through space, but if you learn to look for the plane, you see it.
So, that’s what I want us to do when I’m talking about becoming power fluent, which is my friend Meghna’s language. I want us to learn to start seeing those invisible jets and those invisible hurdles. Those are structures, and we can navigate around them, we can knock them down, we can smash them, and we can build different structures that actually help people heal and grow and share power.
Rebecca Ching: And I would say everyone listening to this is like, “Yes, sign me up!” And yet I’m wondering, for you, when you started becoming more power fluent, was there a bit of maybe backlash or grief or a detox in that process before just going, “Yes, I get it,” and moving forward?
Kelly Diels: I think the detox is life-long. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: True story.
Kelly Diels: Right? It’s not one and done. It’s not like, “Oh, something happened at 11, and now I’m Superwoman.” That’s totally not what happened, right? It’s a constant unraveling. And the messages don't stop coming at you just because you’ve woken up and you can see The Invisible Jet. They keep coming at you, and yes, there's backlash, one hundred percent. I would say when I gave up trying to cosign a lot of things, trying to be complicit or fit into certain boxes, definitely there was backlash, and, like, acute backlash. You know, people trying to stage an intervention with me, I’m not even kidding. Like, friends trying to stage an intervention with me, and my marriage fell apart when I stopped performing the good girl, stopped prioritizing male comfort over my own realities. Yes, everything blew up, one hundred percent, and freedom is worth it. Freedom is worth it.
Rebecca Ching: Just sitting with that, that there’s a cost to --
Kelly Diels: There is a cost.
Rebecca Ching: There’s a cost to living with power over, and there’s a cost transitioning out of that and choosing to not live in that way and to be power fluent, too. And freedom is always worth it, but wow.
Kelly Diels: And it doesn't mean that nobody else is gonna come into your life. If people fade away because you're honest, because you're truthful, because you have boundaries, let them fade away. It doesn't mean no one else is coming.
Rebecca Ching: Are you comfortable talking about the intervention? I’m so curious about the intervention that your friends had on with as you were becoming more power fluent. [Laughs]
Kelly Diels: It is the most ludicrous thing you’ve ever heard, and there’s actually kind of a happy story to it, a happy ending, but it took a few years. But here’s what happened. It was probably 2015, 2016, and you need to understand my circumstance. I am a white woman. I have five Black children that I have birthed from my own body, and I have a stepchild as well. I was seeing all these videos of -- and I live in Canada, and I’m seeing all these videos from The United States of Black people being shot and pulled over and violated and all these just horrific things, and when I watch them, first, I’m morally outraged. This is massively unjust. This should not be happening. This has been happening for years and years and years and generations, but now we’ve got cameras, so now we’re seeing it. This should not be happening. I am not okay with this happening. I’m not cosigning this reality. And also, I’m watching all of those videos thinking, “That’s my child. That could be my child.”
And so, I was having a profound, visceral reaction to it, and so, about 2015, 2016, I’m posting about Black Lives Matter, I’m posting about justice, and I’m posting all these things on social media a lot, frequently, high volume. [Laughs] And some of my high school friends were starting to be irritated by this. Some of them, whom I was still very close to, some of them who I wasn’t.
But one of my high-school boyfriends posted this picture of a blonde Barbie who was pregnant with two little Black Barbie doll children, and wrote a post underneath it saying, like, “Is this just me or does this make you sick,” or something like that. It was just ridiculous, and I looked at that like, oh, wow, that’s exactly my family. And so, I wrote, “Oh, hey, Jeff,” and I’m gonna say his name, “Gee, that’s not racist at all.” [Laughs] You know? And I said something on Facebook about it.
He blocked me, a bunch of other people blocked me, and there was a bunch of kerfuffle about it, and one of my closest friends in my entire life stayed friends with him, was still commenting positively on his and other people’s accounts who were part of that whole kerfuffle, and I went to her, and I was upset, and I was like, “How can you stay acting like none of this is happening when he said that and this is okay with you? How is this okay with you?” She cried, and she was so frustrated with me. She felt like I was attacking her. And I was like, “But you're just leaving me out in the cold here, and you say that you're opposed to this, but you're just chit chatting and shooting the breeze with him like it‘s no big deal, and this is not okay. You need to actually let people know that this is not okay. I’m not saying you have to abandon everybody. I think it’s important to stay in people’s lives so that you can influence them for the better, but you have to let them know it’s not okay, and so, I was upset with her.
So, then, a bunch of my friends got together (because I’d been so mean to this poor girl) and literally called me out like, “You're so angry. You're too angry. We love you. You're pushing us all away. You're way too political. Something’s wrong with you. You need to stop all of this,” and I was like, “Listen, I’m not gonna stop any of it. You all can do whatever you want to do. I’m not gonna unfriend you because I want to influence people, but I’m gonna carry on doing what I’m doing. I’m not too angry. I’m appropriately outraged, and we all should be, and I’m disappointed in all of you.”
So, that’s how things went. It was very bad. I felt like I had lost people who were dear to me. I felt like I was disappointed in people I love, like heartbroken, but I just carried on. I was like I am not changing what I’m going to do. I’m gonna keep doing what I’m gonna do, and I’m gonna let the chips fall where they may. So, that was that.
And then, about two years later, I started seeing them posting things that I would have posted, being critical of anti-Muslim bias, being critical of Trump, being critical of a whole bunch of things and posting all this political stuff. And I was like, ah, look at that. There’s an evolution here, and I believed it to be sincere. So, just because at that moment in time they felt like I was too much, they started getting messages from all around them, from other people in their lives. They started seeing the same things that I was posting everywhere about Black Lives Matter, about bias, about prejudice, about inclusion, about diversity, and it started influencing them, and their thinking shifted, their worldview shifted.
And so, the happy ending to all of this story is that just because someone pushes back on you in an argument at one moment in time doesn't mean that they are un-influenceable, and nobody, I think, changes in the moment that there’s an argument because that’s when we’ve got our defenses up. But what happens is proliferation changes things. If the message is coming in from multiple sources over and over again, it shifts people. A changed context changes people. So, that argument that I had with my high-school friends didn't change them in that moment, but it planted a seed that was, then, watered and grown by all the other different blog posts and articles and people who they were getting information from.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Kelly Diels: So, that’s kind of what I want to note about that. That’s the intervention but there’s also a piece of power there.
One, it’s not all up to you, so it’s not all on your shoulders. Two, it’s unlikely that arguments solve much in the moment. Three, all we have to do is do our part and trust that other people are also doing their part because the proliferation is what changes the context which changes the people. So, your contribution, whether it’s a blog post, whether it’s a comment on Instagram, whether it’s a conversation at the grocery store, it’s part of the proliferation, and someone else is gonna get that message 76 other places in their lives and, eventually, it takes root.
Rebecca Ching: And this goes back to what you were saying about power can be generative. I mean, I think of just seed planting and watering, and you didn't cut them out. They didn't cut you out. You had a bridge still. I know sometimes that’s tricky, right, especially on social media, but especially at the Thanksgiving table or at the holiday table with folks with a lot of different views, and you're talking about a time, too. In 2015 things were ramping up and shaking up in ways, especially for folks who show up in the world like I do, right, where it was getting rocked in a way that was impacting, and then 2017 when the women’s marches were happening all around the world right after the election.
There was a different kind of awakening, and I appreciate that reminder to do our part, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel powerless.
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This takes me to a term that you use a lot in your writing and other conversations you have. You talk about being a Culture Maker, and so, walk me through what it means to be a deliberate Culture Maker and why this is such an important lens for us to embody, particularly those who felt wounded by culture.
Kelly Diels: Well, that’s actually the point is culture is something out there that we are all born into, right? It’s a real thing. We’re born into it. And so, just as we are afraid of power and our experience is that it’s been used against us negatively, sometimes we’re in that same relationship with our culture where it’s something that’s happened to us, it’s something that’s not a great relationship. It’s something that might have harmed us.
And so, we’re uncomfortable with it. We know we’ve been conditioned by it, but we’re unaware of how much we influence it.
So, let’s think about this. If all of us on the planet died tomorrow, if we all disappeared tomorrow, culture would cease to exist. It is also something that we reproduce, and we shape. So, if all of us disappeared, culture would disappear which means we are culture. So, culture doesn't just happen to us. We are also the thing that reproduces culture, that makes culture. It flows through us. So, think of culture flowing through your body. Now, we can just let it flow through our bodies the way it is, and we are Culture Makers, right? It’s regrowing through us, it’s reproducing through us, or we can be deliberate Culture Makers and say, “That unjust culture that I object to is not gonna flow through my body. It’s not gonna use my power. It’s not gonna use my tongue. It’s not gonna use my life. I am gonna decide the kind of culture that I contribute back,” and that’s what it means to be a deliberate Culture Maker. When we just let it flow through us, the status quo just flows through us, we’re culture making, but it’s unconscious. But when we decide the contribution we want to make with our mouths, with our power, with our lives, then we’re deliberate Culture Makers, and including with our relationships.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, especially with our relationships.
Kelly Diels: Especially.
Rebecca Ching: Where in your life are you being a deliberate Culture Maker right now? Where is that really showing up for you right now?
Kelly Diels: It’s showing up in a big way in my parenting. I think that’s one of the number one ways that I culture make. I am trying to raise free humans.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Kelly Diels: That’s huge, and I am trying to raise people who know how to navigate power fluently and who know how to love each other, who know how to take care of themselves, who know about self-care and community-care. That’s important to me.
You know, the next generation’s important to me. They’re our future. Whitney Houston told us, right? So, that’s really important to me. And the other way that I show up as a Culture Maker is in the interior of my business. What are my work practices? How do I relate to my colleagues and to the people I hire? Am I acting justly within my business, not just treating people like human resources? So, that’s important to me. In the interior business practices of my business, how am I culture making? And then in the world, what are my business practices? All of those things are important to me, and then the messages I put out in the world. I’m trying to put out new ideas. I’m trying to tell us that everything that’s been used against us has been a source of power and encourage us to grow these equitable, just, life-giving ways of being in power. So, that’s one of my ways of culture making is putting out those ideas in our wider culture, sharing images that promote equity, justice, and a future in which we all flourish.
Rebecca Ching: Now, you talk about the backend in your business, and I know, for me, I’ve had to do and continue to do a lot of unlearning and learning around being a deliberate Culture Maker in business. What have been the bigger challenges in how you lead and run your business?
Kelly Diels: I guess one of the biggest challenges is I didn't want to, right? I didn't want to lead. I just wanted to do my work and I wanted, magically, things to happen. But what has to happen is if I’m the leader of a company and my job is to cultivate everyone else and create the conditions in which they can flourish, that means I have to step into my power and think how can I author conditions here? What are the policies and practices? What are the conversations? What do our relationships need to look like? What do our contracts need to look like? What’s the process by which we contract? How can I create conditions that help people thrive?
So, those are things that I think about. Those are policies that I make, and this is the thing I want us to know. Institutions aren't these big things out there. We are all, anyone who is owning a business even if it’s a teeny tiny business and it’s just you, you are building an institution of the future. So the decisions you make in your business are literally policies. So, all of those things matter, and those are the only things we have control over. I can’t tell my local health ward what to do except for every couple of years when I vote for elected officials, right? I don't have control over that. I can push back, I can protest, I can do all those things, but I literally don't have the decision-making authority to implement the kinds of policies I want to see. I do have that decision-making authority in my own business.
So, I want us to understand the decisions we make in our business, those are policies, and that means we have power to shape new realities.
Rebecca Ching: A place of decision making is a place of power and not to delegate that or dismiss it or minimize it.
Kelly Diels: And even leaning back, though. Sometimes leaning back and allowing other people to flux their power is a power move as well.
Rebecca Ching: Tell me more.
Kelly Diels: Well, what I want in my business is for people to make decisions and follow through, and I don't want to be involved in every decision. And so, I love it when people are like, “Kelly, I made an executive decision. I did this.” I’m like, “Hallelujah! That’s amazing!” Right? So, me leaning back and creating space for people to exercise their skill is a way that I’m facilitating all of our power.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Kelly Diels: It’s the same with parenting, right? When we lean back a little bit and let a kid make a decision or run an experiment or figure something out, we’re helping them build power, and that’s another form of our power because we facilitated something amazing happening.
It doesn't have to be like we’re bossing everyone around. When we facilitate new realities, that’s how we exercise collective power. We help each other facilitate new realities.
Rebecca Ching: That makes so much sense, too, because I’m thinking power that’s generative fosters trust.
Kelly Diels: And it fosters new skills.
Rebecca Ching: And new skills, right? But if power that’s destructive is micromanaging, there’s no trust, right? It’s power over. So, I think that’s a really good way to operationalize it and kind of distinguish power on a whole other level because without trust there’s not a relationship. Well, there is a relationship, but there’s no connection there.
Kelly Diels: Right, so let’s be like let’s actually make sure to really underline this. Power that produces trust is generational and is facilitative. That’s a new form of power. That’s a skilled use of power. The other thing I would look at is power producing new skills in more people.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Kelly Diels: That’s life giving, right? That has a multiplying effect, an amplification.
Rebecca Ching: There we go.
Kelly Diels: And negative, dominant power takes skills and trust away from other people and relocates it in the body of the person using the -- or the domain of the person exercising that unjust power.
Rebecca Ching: Ah, thank you for unpacking deliberate Culture Maker. I had never thought of it that way about culture’s always going though me, status quo’s going through me, but as a deliberate Culture Maker, I can do a hard stop and figure out what do I want to flow through me, what am I gonna be colluding and complicit with and what do I just want to disrupt, set boundaries around, hold accountable, say no to, all of those things. So, thank you for that. That is gonna stay with me for a long time.
Okay, so, I’m going back to your Sunday Love Letter again. You wrote the following:
“Your high standards are the seeds of your future business gains and your social impact.”
I had to kind of pause for a moment when I read that one. Walk me through what you mean by this and how do you differentiate your high standards from perfectionism?
Kelly Diels: Okay, so let’s think about dating for a minute.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Kelly Diels: So, back in the day when I had dates and went dating, I remember seeing online that people would say things like, “No drama,” and I’m heterosexual, so whenever a man would write on his profile, “No drama,” what I knew that meant was, “I’m gonna treat you egregiously, and I don't want you to say anything about it. I’m the source of drama, but I’m gonna project it onto you,” and I’d be like, yeah, no. I’m not going to do that.
So, what I also knew in dating was when someone told me that I was high maintenance, it meant that they wanted me to have lower standards so that they could treat me badly. So, I started interpreting high maintenance as a good thing. High maintenance means I have standards and boundaries and expectations about relationship integrity. This is the other thing. I think a lot of time people with non-dominant identities have been told that they're too much, they're high maintenance, their standards are too high, and we need to lessen our standards, and I actually don't think that’s true. I think we need to keep our standards high and stop moving off of them.
So, if you have a high expectation, that’s actually a good thing, and if we have a high expectation for justice in our culture, even if it’s not being met, we can still push towards that thing. If I have a high expectation about how high I’m gonna climb on a mountain, even if I don't get where I wanna go, I’m gonna go a lot further than if I had a low expectation. So, if we have high expectations about justice and equity, even if our culture isn't meeting them, we can push the standards so that they are increased, and we can do that in our own lives and in our own businesses. So, we can have boundaries, we can have high expectations, and we can start teaching the world how to treat us.
Rebecca Ching: We can start teaching the world how to treat us through our high standards, and now I’m seeing the connection with how you describe high standards as generative power, too, that paying it forward to our future business (I’m connecting all of the dots here) and our social impact because perfectionism is very, then, external-focused. It’s very rigid, it’s very caring about what other people think, it’s acquiescing, it’s appeasing, right?
Kelly Diels: Right, I’m not talking about perfectionism at all. I’m trying to detox from perfectionism in a big way. What I am talking about is not lowering your standards for what should be happening in the world. I’m not talking about being a perfectionist and overworking a blog post or overworking a work assignment or hustling yourself into the ground. I’m talking about your standards for justice and what you know to be fair and right in your relationships and in the world, don't lower those standards. Require other people to rise to them. And then hold yourself to them as well. So, if you're like, “This is how I want things to be,” then make them be like that in your world.
Now, I’m not trying to pretend that material circumstances don't exist, right? I understand intimately that, as a woman entrepreneur, I am grossly undercapitalized. Only, like, 11% to 16% of the business loans in this world go to women. Less than 2% of venture capital goes to women. The numbers are even worse when you actually start looking into that data. It’s like 0.063% of all venture capital goes to Black women entrepreneurs. The numbers are shocking. So, I’m intimately aware of all the ways that people with non-dominant identities are deprived of resources on purpose. Like, 2% could not happen organically.
That is systemically determined. Statistically, that can’t happen on its own, so there are actual circumstances that we’re navigating. I’m not trying to say that those things don't happen, but the things that are within your domain of control do not reduce your standards.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh. Within the space that’s within my domain of control, do not reduce my standards. That’s a powerful container right there. What are my standards with what I have and what I can do right now.
Kelly Diels: I’ll give you an example in my business: payment plans. I have been writing about this since 2016, and it’s just starting to take. I’m seeing other people writing about this and lobbying about this. But I said that in the coaching world and the online self-help world, I see people charging 25%/35%/66% interest for accessing a payment plan to take a course. In some places, that’s just straight up illegal, right? But it’s so disgusting because what you're doing is penalizing the people who are the least able to pay for a service and then turning that into a profit center in your business. In no way, shape, or form does it ever cost 25% to extend credit to people, right?
And so, what I want us to do, if we’re gonna charge anything for people accessing payment plans, which I actually have a problem with, but if we’re gonna charge anything it has to be tied to the actual numbers. So, if you run your numbers and you find that it costs you 7% to manage payment plans, to follow up on collections, and account for any defaults, if you realize that’s what it is, then add 7% to that payment plan. Recoup the cost, for sure (you're not a charity), but don't go charging 25% and make an extra 18% on a profit from the people least able to pay. That is textbook standard definitional economic injustice, and if I have a standard that I’m trying to create a world in which we all flourish, I’m not gonna reduce my standard and change my business practice to produce profit on the backs of the people least able to pay.
So, keep your standards high. If you have a personal principle, build that into your business practices. To be particular about this one, what I would actually like to see us do is find that 7% cost (find that real number) and spread it out across all of our prices. So, when I go into a convenience store, I dislike it intensely when they charge me $1.25 or $2.25 to use my credit card or debit card. I’m like take that number and bake it into all your prices. So, that’s what I would like us to do with payment plans. Consider it the cost of doing business and bake it into all your prices rather than locating it on the backs of the people least able to pay.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, I love it. I love it. We could keep going on off of this. This is wonderful. I am curious on how you view success. What does success look like for you today and how is it different from what you were taught?
Kelly Diels: I think success is a personal metric. How are you flourishing? So, I’m trying to unhook from the narratives around success that you need to make X amount of dollars and have this handbag and own these things. I’m trying to unhook from that. What I’m trying to hook into is what do I need to flourish and take care of the people around me? I have a million children. I have very high expenses. I take care of elders. So, I actually need to earn a lot of money and other people on the left might say, “That’s gross. That’s capitalist,” but I’m like no, that’s not capitalist. We are all, in the vision I have for us, going to have a higher standard of living. I don't think that we should be going off and buying private islands or doing enormously destructive things in the climate.
We shouldn't be doing those things, but I want us all to have what we need to thrive. Everyone needs to be fed. Everyone needs to have access to good education. We need to have reserves so that if someone is sick, they can take time off. All of that is important. So, my personal definition of success isn’t I’m going to earn X-million dollars. My personal definition is do I have the resources I need to flourish and be safe and take care of the people around me? Do I have enough to be generous with my time and my spirit and my knowledge with other people? Because if I’m working three jobs because I don't have enough money, I don't have time to be generous, I don't have time to mentor, I don't have time to contribute to my community. So, flourishing for me is do we have time to contribute to our communities? Do we have time to be in loving relationships with other people? Are we safe and secure especially in an environment where there are not a lot of social supports available.
Rebecca Ching: I love that so much. You mentioned that you're trying to unhook from the old school what we were taught about success in terms of dollar signs or things we acquire. Is there anything in particular that’s helping you on a very practical level from unhooking that? Because I know a lot of people have a hard time. They hear what you say and they're like, “Yes,” and then they feel pulled back right into a lot of dominant culture’s views of success. So, what’s helping you stay unhooked from that and continue to move in the direction you want?
Kelly Diels: It’s other people, honestly. It’s that I’ve surrounded myself with other people who have that same dream and are trying to live into it.
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Kelly Diels: I have a coach who has an anti-capitalist mentality, who’s always helping me. Their name is Jane Charlesworth. They're amazing. I highly recommend. But when I went to them, I was like, “This isn't about me being more successful in business. I know I can do that. This is about me having a beautiful life.”
I want to stop working so hard. I want to enjoy my kids more. I want to go hiking, and I don't want to be absolutely riveted with guilt when I’m doing those things. I want to have, what Mary Oliver calls, that one wild and precious life. I want to have that one wild and precious life, and I don't want my tombstone to say, “She kept a clean house and worked really hard.” I want it to say, “She was loved, and she contributed to this world, and she wrote books.” Those are the things I want it to say, so how do I create that life? So, having a coach that’s constantly reinforcing and questioning those things so that they stay front of mind and so I start living into new ways of being and start unraveling my old habits.
I’m in a group with Danielle Cohen. It’s a business group, but it’s from that mentality that if we’re gonna flourish, our bodies need to be okay, our spirits need to be okay, we need to be able to be generous and have time. I’m surrounded by people who are trying to do that, and I’m learning from them, and they're learning from me, and we keep it front of mind. So, having friends and community members and loved ones who have the same goals, we don't have the answers but we’re all experimenting our way there. We have to have other people around us. There’s no such thing as getting there by ourselves.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and that mindset’s making us sick and making our country and our world sick, too.
Kelly Diels: For real.
Rebecca Ching: For sure. Thank you for unpacking that a little bit more. I’m curious, too, with the work that you're doing today, is this what you thought you’d be doing with your life?
Kelly Diels: I thought I was gonna be a writer, and I think that I am. I just haven't published a book yet, but I always thought that that’s what I was gonna do was sit down and write books.
Rebecca Ching: That explains your in-depth and beautiful weekly emails that everyone needs to subscribe to that’s listening to this. So, thank you for this conversation. I feel like we only tipped the iceberg of it, but I really, really appreciate your time, and I’m wondering if I can wrap up with just some fun, quickfire questions as we end our conversation.
Kelly Diels: Yes!
Rebecca Ching: Okay, Kelly, what are you reading right now?
Kelly Diels: Architectural Digest.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Kelly Diels: [Laughs] I’m obsessed with design and beautiful things.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] That’s a fun one, for sure. What song are you playing on repeat?
Kelly Diels: Oh, I have the worst taste in music. I am obsessed with the song called “High Hopes,” Panic At The Disco. It’s old, and I know everyone’s laughing at me right now, but I literally think the lines of that song are my life. I have high hopes for living. That’s my job.
Rebecca Ching: I love it. I’m going to add that to my Spotify list. What is the best TV show or movie that you’ve seen recently?
Kelly Diels: I really loved Succession. Really, really loved it. It’s like everything that I think about, and, okay, here’s a power thing. If you watch the people in power, when people are talking to them, Logan Roy, for example, all he says is, “Mm-hmm. Okay. Mm. Okay.” He doesn't ever say anything, and I was like that’s the power move is he’s just receiving information but not giving out any information. That’s a dominance power move of, like, trying to hoard all the information. So, he receives information, people talk, they give away too much, they show all their cards, and they don't know what he’s doing because he just says, “Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.” So, hoarding information is hoarding power.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. That’s enough to make me revisit Succession. Thank you for that. Favorite eighties movie or piece of eighties pop culture?
Kelly Diels: I don't know if it was the eighties. It must have been the eighties. Dirty Dancing.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely. Late eighties, yes.
Kelly Diels: Never give it up! [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Kelly Diels: Nobody puts baby in a corner! [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I was just gonna say! [Laughs]
Kelly Diels: I carried the pumpkin. No, I carried the watermelon. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Carried the watermelon! [Laughs]
Kelly Diels: Yeah, love Dirty Dancing, always, always, always. And, hey, what a powerful political message, you know? It’s about abortion.
Rebecca Ching: Yes. It’s surprisingly so. The movie itself, the acting and all that, but it’s -- man, there’s an underlying message there, yeah.
Kelly Diels: It’s a young woman’s coming of age, embracing her sexuality, refusing to be shamed for it. It’s powerful.
Rebecca Ching: You're right. Redeeming Dirty Dancing. What is your mantra right now?
Kelly Diels: I have so many but, really, everything that’s been used against you can be a source of power. Whenever I’m nervous, whenever I’m spinning out, I come back to that and try to use it as the treasure map. Okay, where’s the power here? Let’s locate it. Let’s use it.
Rebecca Ching: That is a powerful self-leadership mantra. I love it. Kelly, thank you so much for coming today. Where can people find you if they want to connect with you and learn more from you?
Kelly Diels: www.kellydiels.com. D-I-E-L-S.com. It’s www.kellydiels.com/subscribe if you want to join my Sunday Love Letter, and I really do pour my heart into it every single week. On Instagram, I’m @kelly.diels.
Rebecca Ching: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Kelly. I really appreciate your time and sharing of your heart and your hard-earned wisdom today. Really grateful.
Kelly Diels: It’s a delight. Thanks to everyone for listening and being here with us.
Rebecca Ching: I feel Kelly’s directive to grow power that is shared, sustainable, and generative in my bones. It feels like truth, and it releases the burden lens on power that holds back and hurts so many of us. Kelly noted there is a lot invested in us having an adversary relationship with power and keeping us from a more generative view on it that could be used as a force of good. What have you been made to feel ashamed of around power (your body, your story), and how can you flip these messages and make them new realities for you and others? (This is such a great question that Kelly asked in our conversation.) If you’d led with a more generative view of power, what would shift in how you lead?
How can you use a generative view of power to help you, and those you support, thrive? When we commit to growing a definition of power that fuels change, brings people together, and increases capacity, we embrace a life definition of power, one that heals as opposed to one that harms, and this is the work of an Unburdened Leader.
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If this episode was meaningful to you, I’d be honored if you left a review, rated it, and shared it with someone who you think would benefit from it. And you can find this episode, show notes, free Unburdened Leader resources, and a way to sign up for the Unburdened Leader weekly email, along with all the ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com.