Empowering Your People – Crazy – Like a Fox!


Here’s my favorite line from my favorite book on leadership:

“Credible leaders accept and act upon the paradox of power: We become most powerful when we give our power away.” – Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge.

Some never get this. They are threatened by staff. Their ego needs to be in control. They fear mistakes. Their organization tells them it’s dangerous to share freedom, responsibility, and power. Here’s their patron saint: “We follow orders, son,” Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) snaps at Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise) in A Few Good Men.  “We follow orders or people die.”

Increasingly, enlightened leaders understand that the new world demands that we give power away.  Even in the army, which has historically advanced Colonel Jessup’s impassioned rationale for control, change is rapid as the circumstances of war are now radically different.  In the new army, situations shift unpredictably; the enemy doesn’t stand across a battle line, wear identical uniforms, and move as one, directed by a single commander.  And so the army strives tries to teach soldiers the principles and missions to allow them to make on-the-spot decisions. The army becomes powerful when the command can decentralize power.

Likewise in businesses, the “battles” move more quickly – online, through technology, with up-start start-ups, and demanding customers. And so workers up and down the line – in the greatest businesses – have the authority to get the customer or client what they need. It simply won’t work to take a week to percolate every question up and down the food chain.

Last week I was training a really great group of folks from a California government agency.  I asked them this question, which I invite you to ponder:  If you were WILDLY committed to empowering your people, acting on this paradox of power, what might you do?  How could you really take radical steps to upskill your people – to help them be knowledgable, skilled, confident, etc.?

Ravi, from the back of the room, gave the same answer that one of the guys at Google’s Ann Arbor office had given when I had asked a similar question to their managing team a couple years ago.  And he gave it in the same way:  I can imagine John Madden describing these identical comments and the way they delivered them, like he used to say on Monday Night Football:  “The guy was sitting there, and then it was, like, it was, like it was, BOOM, the running back hit the hole and he was gone; nobody could catch him.”  “Boom,” as Madden would say, because it was as if these two guys had each been hit by lightning and in turn shot everyone else a bolt.  Shut us all up.  Made us really think….wow…could you do that…would “they” let you…what would happen…cool.  I don’t know if the fellow at Google did it or whether Ravi will.  And here’s the “it,” here’s what they said they would do if they were wild about empowering their folks:  “I would have people on my team do my job, and I would do theirs.”

Man, I love that idea!!!  Anybody out there tried it?  Anybody want to weigh in?  How about this:  Has anybody done it with their kids – invited them to do your job at home for a week?  I’d love to hear about that too!

It sure would give people a sense of empowerment and one cool opportunity to

Lead with their best self!


  • When I used to supervise, I would start an employee out by saying, “You are allowed to think in this job. If you can find a better way to do it, then do it that way.”

    Lately I have been seeing problems at a local hospital, where the CEO of a few years has a practice of wanting most doctors to be hospital employees, and not working from independent offices. Some doctors like being an employee, since it frees them to be just doctors, but others do not like it due to reduced freedom. Alpena needs at least two more general surgeons, and three would not be too many. But this hospital only wants to recruit surgeons who will be on their staff. In the past the same hospital, under other leadership, would help private doctors set up shop if they met a current need. The need of control by the new hospital leadership is reducing the speed at which our need for doctors can be filled. It is better to allow a choice when using the resources of a public owned facility. But there are opportunities for general surgeons in Alpena either as a hospital employee or as a private practitioner. Alpena Surgical is looking to add new surgeons.

  • 20 years or so ago, as a young leader in banking, I unintentionally did this, and then encouraged it since. One of my employees was on vacation/out on leave and I had to do their job – they had a process that, as I did it, found was very inefficient; when I asked upon their return, why they did it, they indicated it was how they were instructed and they had asked me to review the report related to the process at a high level a while back, but as they go no reply (in all of my busy ‘to do’ items shuffling), they just kept doing it as instructed. I told them, next time you have a request/idea like this and you feel it’s inefficient or your just questioning it, have me try what you’re doing and we’ll see what I really think based on the actions, not based on your comments or my thoughts. We eliminated steps in a process and found a better way to get the work done and I got employees that thought more and changed more freely how the work was done – win win. I’ve tried to suggest and encourage employees always to run their areas their way and look for better ways, so long as the end result is accomplished. Thanks for the reminder to continue this – I’ll work to have them do some of my work one of these days soon.

  • I absolutely have been working diligently on ’empowering my people’. It is not related to commerce business, rather, application is towards empowering my fellow patriot citizens to vote out the despot totalitarian egotist, barack hussein obombya. His blatant disregard for life, his acquiescing to the CFR/military industrial complex, amongst other egregiousness, has sullied my belief in him. I voted for this liar, and you can rest assured he won’t fool me twice. Neither can Mitt Shalomney, with his similar ‘attributes’ and shill minion status shared by his twin brother, obombya. The time for a constitution adhering, patriot president who reps the people is greater than ever. Thank God for RON PAUL.

  • Dan:
    I agree with you – by empowering others, we get the best work out of everyone. Several challenges to operationalizing this that you did not mention: 1) This is not the way people are traditionally used to behaving, and it takes time to get them to a point of understanding that they have a valued voice and exercise it; 2) decentralizing power requires the ability to clearly communicate on a regular basis so that all parties have an idea of the “big picture”; and 3) all of this takes concerted effort and time. If we can hang in there during the learning process and be both patient and diligent, we can reap the benefits you mention.

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