The Empowerment Myth.
by David Alan Brown - a Cognisium member
Organizations that allow the definition of empowerment to shift from personal success to
institutional culture are in danger of failing. I have often been called to consult programs that are
in crisis, often because of a leadership void. In an effort to stay alive, many adopt an attitude of
empowerment that leads all stakeholders to believe they are entitled to participate in any
activity, every decision, every idea and every dispute. What results is chaos and, occasionally,
outright mission failure.
True empowerment is a powerful tool. Leaders empower people with the resources they require,
the political clout to take action and a clear definition of success for the individual and the
company. Good people managers forward their vision through careful assessment of a
stakeholder’s skills and intentions plus a strong dose of encouragement and appreciation.
Somewhere along the line, usually when leadership is absent or weak, empowerment can come
to mean an egalitarian view of all people (good when it comes to respect and rights, not so good
when it comes to talents and skills) coupled with a belief that all stakeholders have an equal
stake in (and therefore opportunity to shape) the context and culture of the place. Suddenly
everything requires a vote, unqualified volunteers are handling vital tasks and political
gamesmanship runs rampant.
The effects are disastrous:
● Productivity drops because the mechanics of groupthink require time, inclusion, expert
facilitation and consideration. Tired and bored stakeholders who have no expertise or
interest in mundane decisions are required to sit through decision making. A busy Board
of Trustee member should not be expected to have an opinion on the direction of the
lines in the parking lot, though I once saw this exact situation in a group whose culture
required everyone’s “empowered” opinion in order for decisions to be reached.
● Simple decisions can cause major disenfranchisement. I once watched a committee
who was “empowered” to create a very public brand for a campaign present the results
of weeks of research and consideration. Then, after input from the entire leadership
panel, the President walked to the whiteboard, casually drew his vision and (partly
because it was brilliant) accepted approval and accolades. Even though this was the
right outcome, the effects of undercutting the work of the committee members was a
cultural death knell. Stakeholders immediately began to question if their work would be
valued or wasted. Disillusioned, engagement lagged and the campaign faltered.
● Organizational reputations and ideals are often compromised. Bestowing leadership
titles as a result of idealism, instead of based on credentials, training, history and
accomplishment often sows the seeds of destruction. As soon as a stakeholder is
formally recognized as a leader or representative, everything they do reflects on the
ideals and image of the organization. It may be easy for an outsider to dismiss a
dangerous or dissonant opinion from someone on the fringes of your company, but if that
person represents a vital part of the firm, then a casual comment can be interpreted as
coming from the heart. Stakeholders will quickly doubt the sincerity of the entire
organization and as soon as they get a whiff of hypocrisy (even if it is imagined), they will
abandon the cause.
As an advocate of strong, visionary leadership I can provide a few reminders to counteract
rampant quasi-empowerment. The most important thing to keep in mind is: You don’t just need
warm bodies, you need the right warm hearts and minds.
● Recruit for need. The wrong person in a job can do far more damage than leaving a
position empty for a while. If their function is vital to your success, then you probably
shouldn’t be leaving it to just any ole volunteer anyway. Your business would never allow
“just anybody” to fill a key function, and neither should your public service program. This
includes leadership positions. Leadership is a skill just like accounting or database
● Have an answer to “Why?” I was once on the board of a small church who needed to
paint the walls of our newly constructed meeting space. The first inclination was to take a
survey of the congregation. In a room of 100 people, this would likely produce 100
opinions, 99 of which would be dismissed. Instead, leadership started with questions
about our ideals, i.e. “What do we want those we serve to experience?” Confident in this
answer, we went to experts in color and said, “How do we achieve this goal?” Then we
presented two choices to the whole group. When people asked “Why just these two?” we
were able to explain how these two choices would accomplish our collective vision. Now,
even those whose preference was not chosen could rest easy knowing the mission of
the organization was being well served.
● Evaluate emotional intelligence. Good leaders take the time to understand every
aspect of their staff. This includes how well the person will respond to crisis, debate,
other personalities and even (or perhaps especially) failure. Before someone is
“empowered” to be a key part of your mission, be sure you understand the strengths and
liabilities of their personalities. Paid and volunteer staff who aren’t able to constantly
represent the values of your company need not be promoted.
● Create a program of training and require prerequisites for service. I shudder when I
go to organizations that say “yes” whenever a stakeholder offers an item, a service or a
program. Often the desired outcomes are appealing, but I see disaster when leaders
don’t ask for experience or training. Obviously you must know what skills a person brings
from the outside. Equally as important, you must have a ladder of experience that
qualifies them for increasingly vital and visible roles. In addition, there must be ongoing
coaching in how to uphold your expected ideals and culture.
By the way, this training, support, inclusion and self confidence are your payments to trusted
staff members for their work. As an organization that provides real personal and professional growth through your training and empowerment, you develop invested, long term and productive
Remember, you or your staff will have to pick up the pieces left behind by those who used
“empowerment” as a lever to feel important, get their way or simply spin their wheels without
really investing in your mission and vision. Much of your current resource management may
focus on specific jobs, expectations and tasks … but beware of how you fill your “soft skill” roles.
Empowering your leaders requires an understanding of their skills, confidence in their integrity
and careful nurturing of their process. That’s the job of leadership.
Of course, there’s a lot more to visionary leadership. Contact me and we can develop a
consulting plan for your group that helps move from chaos to accomplishment.
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