True Leadership Comes from Giving Power Away Instead of Hoarding It
- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 10 of 24 -
Only empowered people can reach their full potential. As such, people’s capacity to achieve is determined by their leader’s ability to empower. Indeed, empowerment is a potent enabler of action. Accordingly, great leaders give away power instead of hoarding it among a select few in the rarified air of the C-Suite. As Theodore Roosevelt found, "The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it."
Empowerment Creates Ownership Instead of Artificial Buy-In
Many leaders feel that once they’ve reached buy-in and alignment from their employees that their work is complete. Unfortunately, this is a mistake and generally results in artificial buy-in. Instead, leaders must create ownership. However, ownership cannot happen unless leaders give power to the people. This transpires via a healthy does of empowerment. Indeed, success does not stem from micromanaging or creating rules and tools to ensure compliance, the enemy of empowerment and innovation. Instead, and as Steve Jobs said, "It's not the tools you have faith in. Tools are just tools -- they work or they don't work. It's the people you have faith in or not.” As such, by empowering people leaders can move their people from having an “employee” mentality to an “ownership” mindset. An employee mindset produces an often begrudging mentality and artificial harmony while an ownership mindset organically sparks innovation, productivity, and perhaps most importantly engagement because employees feel they have the autonomy needed to best meet the needs of the enterprise and their customers. Remember, engaged employees equates to highly engaged customers yet this engagement rarely, if ever happens, without its empowerment precursor. Accordingly, leaders must create ownership, not merely alignment which is often simply artificial harmony disguised as buy-in. However, the precursor to creating ownership instead of buy-in is empowerment from the bottoms-up.
Empower from the Bottoms-Up
While it’s easy to empower from the top-down, ultimately the true test of a leader is to have the security and leadership skills to empower from the bottoms-up. While excessive rules may work for compliance, choice (i.e., empowerment) is a far better option for bringing the best out of a company and its employees. Simply, choice is the fuel for an ownership mindset and engaged employee. In turn this begins a value unlocking domino effect because engagement is the fuel for learning, learning is the fuel for innovation, and innovation is the fuel for both distinctive products and a world-class customer experience. For example, Google allows its engineers to spend 20 percent of their time working on anything they like. Google understands the power of employee autonomy, empowerment, and choice. Consequently, in a given year, typically 50 percent of Google’s new products are created from this 20 percent, including Gmail, Orkut, and Google News.
To accomplish this, leaders must create a culture that empowers from the bottoms-up not simply top-down (See Exhibit 2). As John C. Maxwell notes, “Great leaders gain authority by giving it away. If you want to be successful, you have to be willing to empower others.” As such, organizations must take a renewed focus on the frontline as the heart, soul, and pulse keepers of the organization takes place at this stage. Typically, the least paid staff are the ones that have the most touch points with the customer. However, these very employees are traditionally the least empowered, equating to value destruction stemming from (1) poor employee engagement, (2) high employee turnover, (3) low employee productivity, (4) stifled creativity and poor innovation, (5) poor customer service, (6) low customer loyalty, (7) slow decision-making and internal competition stemming from silos, and (8) stagnant profitable growth. The front line, not the bureaucrats should decide how better to serve customers because they have the best pulse on the customer. A great analogy of empowering from the bottoms-up is from Dr. Seuss’s profound child story Yertle the Turtle which I’d highly recommend reading. To highlight, the bottom, most lowly turtle (Max) noted, "Your Majesty, please... I don't like to complain, but down here below, we are feeling great pain. I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
For example, leaders must remember that the employee/front-line is the physician who is right there on a daily basis measuring the patient’s (i.e., customer’s) pulse. If companies don’t empower and listen to the frontline it’s analogous to a patient being put in front of a doctor without the necessary tools for the required surgical procedure. The challenge being that the physician has not been given the power to act or tools to perform his or her work. Just imagine a physician always needing to ask for management approval during life and death situations. The same is true with the frontline on up. The physician (i.e., employee) may be able to have a nice conversation with the patient (i.e., customer) but if the physician (i.e., employee) is not empowered with the tools, resources, and empowerment to act on the spot the patient either (1) dies (i.e., customer lost forever), (2) goes to a competitor (lifetime value shrinks), and/or (3) drives bad publicity (i.e., bad social proof and high legal fees occur).
Empowerment Quick Win
One quick win for empowering employees is to designate a certain dollar amount that any employee can spend on a customer without seeking management approval. This protocol gives employees the "ownership capabilities" to act in real time on both the company's and customer's behalf. Most importantly, this transitions an employee to an engaged owner that is empowered to create, real-time “wow” moments for customers because they now have the tools to not only meet but also exceed customer expectations. In a nutshell, do not be afraid to empower and give autonomy from the bottom-up because such a model (1) mitigates slow decision-making, (2) drives ownership, (3) decreases poor resource allocation and dilution of resources, (4) mitigates customer pain points, and (5) creates the foundational elements of an inspired culture. Simply, leaders must give people the resources, authority and responsibility to succeed and turn them loose to achieve.
To summarize, the only leaders that truly give power away and empower from the bottoms-up are those that are secure, grounded, and comfortable in their own skin. As John Maxwell noted, “Only secure leaders give power to others.” Leaders must make people feel strong and capable. This cannot happen without empowerment. As the founder of Starbucks Howard Schultz noted, “employees want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it." Thus, by empowering employees with the autonomy to act in real time they are more likely to make decisions that are in the best interest of the enterprise and the customer because they feel like owners rather than employees. Remember, only empowered people reach can reach their full potential, meaning a leader’s capacity to empower is highly correlated to people’s success or lack thereof. Therefore, give power away and watch the benefits domino back in exponential ways.
Read the other best leadership practices HERE.
Additional Empowerment Articles
Want Raving Customer? Create Raving Employees
Think Culture is Just a Buzzword? Think Again
The Path to Creating Top-Quartile Employee Engagement
24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -
The following article is Part 10 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.
Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).
INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.
EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.
INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.
Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.