Saturday, June 9, 2012


I read another ‘leadership’ tract the other day and the author went on and on about the need to ‘empower’ your people.  Unfortunately, the author had no clue what that really meant.

The dictionary says that ‘to empower’ means ‘to authorize’ or ‘to give and individual or organization the legal authority to do [something].’  Unfortunately, many leadership gurus, and many purported ‘leaders,’ believe that empowering stops right there.  Tell someone they are ‘empowered’ and then get out of the way.

In fact, you will hear some ‘tough-guy’ leaders who will opine that it’s a good way to identify ‘the real leaders,’ that once ‘empowered’ the real leaders will ‘grab hold of the reins and really take charge.’  (Fill in you favorite leadership metaphor.)

The problem is it’s wrong.

Good leadership is a heck of a lot more than telling someone he has the authority to do something.  Good leaders make sure their people have the tools to accomplish the task.  And what are those tools?

Do they have the right training?  If you tell someone to balance the books, particularly in a corporate environment, they probably need some accounting expertise.  They may also need some legal certification.  If the task at hand concerns making aircraft, you might want to ensure they have a certain level of experience in precision manufacturing.  If the task at hand is building a skyscraper, you might want to make certain they have the right equipment.  Or the money to buy or rent the right equipment and the right people.  Are they properly funded?  Can they be reasonably expected to accomplish everything assigned with the people, equipment, funds, facilities, etc., you provided?

And what is it that the ‘empowered’ are supposed to accomplish?  Have you been clear in communicating your goals?  And are you clear in what is really expected?  Have you delegated authority or are you trying to shift blame for something you believe might fail?  Are you trying to pass off responsibility?  Good leaders delegate, they grant their subordinates as much authority as they need; but good leaders never try to delegate responsibility.

When it comes time to assign a task to someone, it is very helpful to keep a short checklist available:

The Goal – What it is that you expect him to accomplish – Real ‘Metrics’
The Timeline – No kidding, when do you expect him to finish
The Assets Assigned – People, Equipment, Facilities, Support Offices, Additional Funds, Intellectual Property, etc.
When the Assets become available – hard dates, that others in the organization have been told
The Plan has been communicated to the rest of the organization – The major failing of any effort to ‘empower’ one of your people – you forget to let others ‘in on it.’
Assurance that you are delegating authority, but not responsibility, that you will support him and work to his success, that you, in the language of the day, ‘have his back.’

If you tell someone to build a wall but give him no money, no help, no shovels and no bricks or stones then I have to ask what you are really doing. You may be engaged in an experiment to see if the individual is imaginative enough to figure out a way to make the wall with no help and no assets.  But that is not about building a wall, it is about testing for creativity.  The real goal is not the wall, the real goal is the ‘score’ on the test.

But empowering one of your people so that they may accomplish some task – big or small – means that you also commit yourself to ensuring that they have the tools to succeed.  Failure to do so is your failure, not theirs.


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