Are You "Em" - Powerful? - The Unabashed Assertiveness In Granting Power

03 Jul 2015. Robert E. KaplanPodcast

Empowerment has turned into a buzzword that’s lost its meaning. We all know what it looks like to be powerful—or, using today’s euphemism, influential—but how clear a sense do we have of what it means to empower?

Empowerment is sometimes misunderstood as weakness or abdication. Although leaders know better, they can’t help feeling that granting power to others takes away from their own power or that they are somehow rendered “passive,” as one forceful leader put it.

But, done well, empowerment is quite the opposite. Just the prefix “em” will tell you that. To em-blaze is to set something on fire or to cause it to light up. Em-powerment means you cause, you create the conditions for, you set other people up to be powerful in their own right. In so doing, you don’t lose power, you extend it.

Power, after all, is simply a means to the end of getting things done—it shouldn’t matter whether it’s your power or “Other” power. You can grind grain into flour yourself using a mortar and pestle, which human beings learned to do at the dawn of agriculture. Or, as people discovered centuries later, you can spare yourself that manual labor and produce a lot more grain if you hitch horses or water or wind power to the mill.

Delegation of authority is certainly not abdication. It’s taking an active role in arranging for “Other” power to be transmitted to the circular grinding stone. It is spooling out authority to the extent that individuals are able and willing to assume it and then staying engaged with each one to the degree necessary.

There is power in empowerment in a second sense. Not just granting power down, it’s also accepting power up. Because every leader is at risk of having their judgment clouded by emotion or thrown off by subtle or not so subtle warping in their world view; because every leader is at risk of making costly errors of judgment, there is great merit in letting your people weigh in on matters that go beyond their individual units.

Perhaps like some leaders in my experience, your ego rebels, just a bit, at the prospect. Despite your better judgment, perhaps you can’t help feeling that getting input or taking counsel on decisions that are yours to make is somehow a sign of weakness. But, within bounds, accepting power up actually extends your personal power. Done well, it fortifies your judgment.

Another component of effective empowerment—you could think of it as a precondition, but it's really integral to tapping "Other" power—is you must have strength in the people below you. You can only be as em-powerful as the skills and energies of your people allow. If you were deciding on a place to build a windmill, you’d settle for nothing less than a consistently windy place.

Many leaders fall down on the front end of putting high-quality people on their team: either they are poor judges of talent or, out of insecurity, they shy away from appointing the best people. Plenty of other leaders fall down on the back end: out of misplaced loyalty or failure of nerve they hold onto people who’ve lost effectiveness or who turn out not to be good picks.

In that regard, empowerment is sometimes viewed as being too “soft.” Sure, doing a good job of empowering means that you look after people, take an active role in their development, draw them into discussion, show appreciation when it’s due. You need to be inclusive and understanding of people unlike you, and make full use of those unlike types.

But empowerment in organizations can’t be purely altruistic, empathic and considerate. It necessarily contains unabashedly “hard” elements, the frank, unapologetic use of your own power. This applies to making tough calls that adversely affect people and to holding them accountable when their work isn’t up to par. To meet the requirement for high quality talent over time, you have no choice.

However naturally powerful you are, it pays to be em-powerful.  By extending your power you extend your impact—you not only make your organization more efficient, you unleash creative potential that can scarcely be imagined. And by demonstrating that you can scale, you make yourself a better candidate for bigger jobs. What’s more, you afford other people the opportunity for one of life’s deepest satisfactions—to use their powers fully.