So You Want To Be Empowering...

Most Leaders Who Think They're Empowering Aren't!

Is empowerment a meaningless buzzword? Or an essential ingredient for success?

If you answered "yes" to either question, you may be wrong! Read on...

There are leaders who think they're empowering, leaders who wish they were empowering, and leaders who dismiss "empowerment" as nonsense, or at best, a buzzword. Where do you stand?

Whatever empowerment is, it's elusive.

In reality, most leaders who think they're empowering aren't. On the other hand, as a confident leader, you've probably experienced moments when everything worked perfectly, results came effortlessly, with ease and certainty, without the normal amount of "suffering." Don't you want to experience that as often as possible for yourself...and let others share the experience with you?

So what is empowerment?

How do you get it? Where does it come from? How do you give it away? What's it take for "empowerment" to even show up?

With so many successful leaders out there, you'd think there'd be no debate about empowerment. Yet, every day I talk to leaders who are either convinced that empowerment doesn't exist, or are frustrated in their attempts to be empowered or empowering.

Many of these frustrated leaders are desperately trying to empower their people. "I just don't get it," the CEO of a large service organization sighed. "I've made a total effort to define and clarify our culture. We've set clear goals and objectives that everyone's agreed are achievable. They know they can take risks and innovate. In spite of all that, everything still seems to be funneled through me. Nothing really happens unless I'm around! What is empowerment? I sure thought I had done it, but I don't find it showing up!"

This CEO is not alone. Like most, he believes that empowerment is something he does, that others copy, or at least respond to. Actually, that's mostly just good, old-fashioned management. Good CEO's have shared what they know, and their people have absorbed that and run with it for years.

Empowerment is different.

Here's surprising secret number 1: Empowering leader know they don't know. Furthermore, they're vulnerable enough to tell subordinates they don't know. And they're willing to let the subordinates figure it out for themselves.

Don't believe me? Think about it. Think of the time in your life when you felt most empowered. I'll bet it was a time when you had been allowed to figure it out for yourself. You (or you and your team) were the source of the outcome. You caused the result, the success. That's different from "learning the ropes," and applying methods or techniques to situations. It was your "baby" ... you made it up...and you succeeded ...usually with a flare. That's empowerment.

You were empowered because someone else didn't do anything! They were willing to risk being empowering. They were willing to risk total failure...without "reserving" the right to yank the responsibility back from you.

That level of risk-taking is rare. Few bosses are willing to be that vulnerable. Even fewer are willing to do that for all their people! In fact, what boss, in their right mind, would empower anyone to that level? Wouldn't everything get out of hand almost immediately?

Secret number 2:

Genuinely empowering leaders are willing to be that vulnerable because they know they're really not in charge anyway! "Huh?" I can hear you say. "What do you mean, 'They're really not in charge anyway?' "

The only time that leaders can be responsibly empowering is when the company's mission is absolutely clear to everyone concerned. When that clarity exists, the mission is actually leading the organization...not the CEO. That's why some leaders are able to be so empowering...and why others don't stand a prayer.

Secret number 3:

If there isn't a clear, concise, core mission that every employee is totally aligned with, don't even attempt to empower anyone. It will be virtually impossible for them to succeed...and if they do, it will have largely been due to luck. That's not a responsible risk for you, as leader, to take.

On the other hand, if a clear mission is in place...even if it's only your mission that clear in your department or division...your willingness and ability to be vulnerable and empower others is essentially a core competency. You almost have to do it, or the mission will never be fulfilled.

How does this look in reality? Here's a real-life example.

In the first article in this series I described a division in a high tech manufacturing company who's mission was "Manufuturing." (If you haven't read that article contact me, and I'll see that you get a copy.) Before they created this mission, their primary product was being produced in Asia for a tenth of what it cost them to build it here. Corporate officers had been hammering on them for years to lower costs, improve efficiency, do anything that would at least narrow the gap. Nothing had had much impact, and the staff was demoralized.

Realizing that if they were to survive much longer they had to create something completely new, they literally "made up" the "Manufuturing" mission. None of them had any idea what it really meant. In fact the leader discovered her primary task was to ask a single question. When something caught her attention that didn't make immediate sense to her, she asked, "How is what you're doing Manufuturing?" Invariably, she got one of two answers.

The first, and most common, response was an excited and animated description of what the (empowered) individual thought they were about. She, in turn, responded appropriately to the excitement. Often she would gather everyone in the department around the employee exclaiming, "Look what we've just discovered about Manufuturing!" The mission actually gained meaning as routine work was being done.

The second response she would get to her question, "How is that Manufuturing?" was a glazed look, and a "Gee, boss, I don't know." For that, she had one (empowering) reply: "Okay, do something that is!" Then she'd walk away! That's empowerment. While most bosses would be tempted to tell the employee what to do, this leader was clear that she knew no more about manufuturing than the employee did. The employee was empowered to fulfill the mission...themselves.

What was the result of this empowering situation?

Within two years this manufacturing division had developed at least seven profitable products for the company! The employees recognized and shouldered the total responsibility for their own success and future. Rarely did anyone bring the boss a problem. Instead, she was kept busy discovering interesting developments, and encouraging greater risks.

Yes, leaders, empowerment does exist. But it may not exist in the area you're currently looking for it. Empowerment comes when you're willing to vulnerably let the mission lead...and let go of virtually everything that has made you successful (or held you back, for that matter) to this point.

Finally, don't even think about empowering others unless you have a clear core mission. Why raise expectations that can't be fulfilled, and make yourself more miserable? On the other hand, if that core mission is clearly in place, don't wait another minute to start!

© 1995 by Dick Barnett, Barnett & Kutz, Inc.