The Fallacy of Empowerment

empowerment leadershipAt a recent Vistage International All City meeting in Orange County, David Marquet, retired fast attack submarine captain and recent author of the acclaimed leadership book, "Turn The Ship Around," asked a very powerful and provocative question - "If you are telling people that you are going to have an empowerment program, what are you telling them about their condition up until now?" While the insult to the people involved is obvious, disempowerment is also a rather normal experience in adult life. From a leadership perspective this insight calls for a fundamental shift in your mindset. If you think that your people require empowerment that creates a particular set of conversations and resulting actions that are essentially coming from an outside-in and generally top down approach.

If your mindset is that people, or at least the ones you surround yourself with, are naturally passionate, want to make a difference, want to do a good job, and care deeply, you will most likely design a very different approach that is more inside-out and can be seen as grass roots or bottom-up. (A few organizations have even drawn their organization charts upside down in an attempt to display this thinking.) Leadership in this paradigm is often characterized as ‘servant leadership.

On Capt. Marquet’s sub, he did not issue orders. He expected his subordinates to get clear about what was to be done and communicate with him in the form of “sir, I intend to…” This kept him aware of what was going on and allowed him to add information that he might have to the subordinate’s decision-making process. In making this fundamental change in the way the crew and officers communicated, the team was able to move from the worst performing sub in the fleet to the best in one year. (Read his book to learn the full story and to get valuable lessons on how to implement his approach successfully in your organization.)

In a very different environment, The Hunger Project, a global non-profit, has successfully developed a cadre of 300,000 powerful volunteers and 20 million engaged villagers who are working to end hunger in the world. THP stands with the hungry by taking the approach that people are the solution, not the problem, just as Capt. Marquet did with his crew. THP does not teach people to fish, it unleashes the power of each individual inside a shared commitment to ending their own hunger. When they mobilize, these villagers then determine their own path to ending hunger and take on learning what they will need to know to get the job done.

Where do you stand? Are you willing to work with your associates to create a shared ‘Yonder Star’ and then support them in fulfilling that vision? Are you prepared to live with your own issues around what may seem like giving up control? What results might be possible if you take this new approach?