Leadership Essentials: Empowerment

Author By Steve Brechter

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “The wicked leader is he who the people despise. The good leader is he who the people revere. The great leader is he of whom the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”

Not bad advice, especially when you consider that it dates back to 500 BC. The ages have proven that Lao Tzu’s message on empowerment is universal.

In a recent blog, 6 Ways to Think and Act like a Leader, we outlined the key competencies of leadership. In this blog, we’ll look at perhaps the most difficult (yet vitally important) of those competencies, empowerment.

Without exception, the most impactful leaders are those who “let go” and “empower” their people to do their jobs.

5 Ways to Create an Environment of Empowerment

Here are five ways to create a high-commitment work environment where people are motivated and encouraged to achieve through empowerment.

1.  Take a Chance on People

The prerequisite for empowerment is the willingness to take chances on people.

Why is that so important? We in aviation are used to working in a highly regulated environment and for very good reason. The safety record that we enjoy in business aviation is due to a large extent to the regulations under which we operate.

But operating in a regulated environment tends to condition us. We train for competency and we advance to higher levels of responsibility in measured steps.We advance only when we are able to demonstrate proficiency. That should stay exactly as it is for the technical aspects of our jobs.

But,it does tend to pace career progression. The talented people entering the workforce at this time don’t want to wait long to advance. So in those areas where you are able, take a chance on people. Give them assignments with some “stretch.”  Show confidence that you trust that they will rise to the occasion.

What made certain leaders in my career better than others? They took chances on me.


2.  Let Go . . . for Real

A common characteristic of the best leaders I’ve worked for is that they were comfortable letting me do my job as I saw fit. The worst leaders I’ve had were the ones who breathed down my neck at every step, and told me what to do.

“Letting go” is a measure of trust. Trust is a big deal with your people, and it speaks volumes about your effectiveness as a leader. The best way to show trust is to let go . . . for real. Give your people ownership of their processes and organizational “space” for them to execute.

Why is that so hard for some leaders?  One reason is that in business aviation, especially during the early part of our careers, we’ve been trained and rewarded for “doing.”  Our ability to file a flight plan, perform a complicated inspection on an aircraft,plan a complex international trip or develop the flight department’s budget was largely measured by our ability to “do” things on our own.

But now,as a leader, things are different.

All of a sudden, it’s not about our own ability to deliver results, but our ability to deliver results through our people. It’s hard for some leaders in business aviation to let go and let people do their jobs without constant oversight.

The most fulfilling moments that I’ve had as a leader are those in which I’ve tapped one of my talented people on the shoulders with my pen and said, “I hereby knight you as owner of your processes. Go forth and conquer!”

The best leaders are those who let go. They are not micro managers.


3.  Follow Up Regularly

The flip side of letting go is accountability.Even though you have given your people latitude, you’re still accountable for results as their leader.

How do you maintain the delicate balance between accountability and empowerment? You should schedule regular “touch base” opportunities with them. Let them bring you up-to-speed on where they are with projects assigned to them. Ask open-ended questions about progress and determine how you may be able to support the achievement of a successful outcome.

You may certainly offer suggestions, but be careful not to be prescriptive. Like the impressionistic paintings of the late 19th century, there is tremendous power in “suggestion.”

Exhibit complete confidence in your people,but be sure to build-in the appropriate accountabilities.


4.  “Dust Them Off”With Dignity

Once in a while, empowered people are going to make unintentional mistakes or stumble. That’s perfectly fine and is completely expected. If they’re not stretching, they’re not growing or developing.

If a high-performer does make an occasional stumble on a difficult project, pick them up, dust them off (with dignity), and find a way to recognize their efforts in a positive way.

A great example of this earlier in my own career was a major project I was assigned involving a complex manufacturing process that spanned many organizations in many locations.

The objective was to establish a new machine-loading system for all of the company’s manufacturing plants. There were complex interrelationships between organizations and systems that had to be taken into account to design and implement the system, but the result would be a smoother running operation and greater production efficiency.

In my zeal to complete the project in a time-efficient manner, I completely neglected to include an important stakeholder in the process. Some noses were bent out of shape, but luckily I had a very understanding boss who “flew cover” for me and helped mend the relationship.

I never forgot that experience, nor the trust and encouragement from my boss to “stick with it” until the project was successfully completed.


5.  Raise the Bar

A very important step in empowerment is to “raise the bar” for those who are consistently achieving.

As your people become increasingly confident in owning their processes and achieving greater things, they will become hungry for more.

So, raise the bar, and give them more responsibility. Let them assume some of the more complex responsibilities that you may have. Empower them to achieve bigger and bigger things.

You’ll not only be realizing higher levels of commitment and engagement, you’ll be building a stronger bench for leadership succession as well.


Your Turn

How have you empowered your people? What have been the results? We invite you to share what has (and has not) worked. We’ll be happy to share the results in future blogs.