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Center for Enlightened Leadership

The Trouble with Empowerment

  Christa Metzger
  Christa Metzger

Empowerment has been around as a concept of democratic leadership ever since organizations began to shift from a structure of command and control to a more decentralized form of governing. It became the new paradigm beginning in about the 1970’s. It became a rallying cry and the buzzword for the last decades of the 20th century. It was the cornerstone of TQM (Total Quality Management).

I received good training in practices related to empowerment in my administrative leadership courses and in many special workshops. I was just over 30 years old when I was first hired as a principal. I arrived with the highest credentials (a brand-new Ph.D.) and unbounded enthusiasm about how I would do it “right” in this tough inner-city school that was now my practice field!

I established the first faculty council ever in that school, set up numerous committees, and even used a suggestion box to gather input. I consulted with members of my staff on almost every decision. I delegated and solicited ideas. I involved our PTA leaders and sought feedback from influential members of the community. We used terms such as participatory leadership, team management, servant leadership, and collaborative decision-making.

Throughout my career, I employed practices intended to empower those for whom I was the designated leader. When I was superintendent, I made sure all of my managers—school-site as well as district administrators—were trained in TQM. I arranged Win-Win training for our negotiations teams.

I did sometimes wonder about accountability for results and often worried about outcomes. “Remember that the buck stops with you,” an old-timer told me. But how did that relate to my belief in empowerment?

EmPOWERment has to do with power. It means that someone has power, such as that inherent in the legal authority of a position. Besides status power, there are other kinds of power that leaders (or others) may possess, including charismatic power (growing out of personality factors); the power of knowledge (having access to information that others don’t have and may need); or the power to control outcomes by means of access to something that others don’t have (e.g., wealth, good looks, talents, political power).

What does it mean to empower others? Empowerment in the truest sense means to actually let go of some of one’s power, to share it with others, to enable others, to permit others the same privileges that such power can secure for those who have it, to meet the human need for self-directedness and meaning. It requires asking oneself searching questions: Am I really willing to do this? Do I trust others enough to let go? What are my limits? Is empowerment an easy thing to do?

Here are a few things I learned about empowering others:

Most important, you have to begin with yourself and how you view your own power. If you want to practice empowering others, you need to know what kind of power you have, what powers you are willing (or able) to share, what it means to you to empower others in a particular situation, job, or task. How much faith do you have in the potential of other people? How can you empower them, provide them with the resources they need, and then hold them accountable? How do you define yourself as a coach, teacher, facilitator?

I also learned that there are some people in an organization—in any organization, I suspect—who don’t want to be empowered. They are more comfortable with just being told what to do. They sense that this gives them license to question what the leader does and to voice their complaints. In Ken Blanchard’s model of Situational Leadership, those are the ones in the lower-right-hand quadrant in terms of experience and maturity. The PE teacher in my school was that way. “Just tell me what you want,” she’d say. “I’m a team player.” That meant something different to her than it did to me. When the schedule didn’t work, it was the principal’s fault.

There are some who believe that empowerment means they get to do anything they want. Those are the ones on committees who will be furious when all their suggestions are not accepted—even though you use the word “advisory” many times when you introduce their tasks. Parents and community members sometimes perceive empowerment in that same way. Empowerment doesn’t just happen. The leader has to ensure that everyone involved understands what it means when applied to particular circumstances or undertakings.

Empowerment may become an ego trip for the leader “in charge.” When I was a principal, one of my superintendents would “empower” us to do what he wanted. He felt accountable to the school board and simply went through the motions of asking for our recommendations. We didn’t feel that he valued our thoughts and feelings; many times we didn’t know how his goals related to our schools and to the district. As you might imagine, there wasn’t a lot of empowering of others going on at any level in the district during his tenure.

I feel as if I struggled with how to practice empowerment for most of my career as an educational administrator, and I’m not sure that I ever got it “right,” except for now and then. Empowerment is messy, time-consuming, and risky. But it is essential if you value others’ personal growth and development; if you believe that you have a responsibility to help people find more sense, purpose, and significance in their work; and if you are convinced that the results will ultimately—in the long run—be better for everyone.

Suggestion for Practice: Become aware of instances in which you want to empower others to meet a goal that is important to you and for which you will be held accountable. How do you feel? Monitor how others react and what you are learning from this. You might keep an “empowerment journal” to record your impressions.

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