Why “Leaders” Can’t Fully Empower Employees

“Leaders” can’t fully empower employees as long as we continue to associate leadership with position, whether senior executive or “team leader”. Organizations desperately need to empower employees more fully in order to foster more innovation faster. But they won’t get as far as they need to until they start recognizing that front-line knowledge workers who promote new products are showing bottom-up leadership and that the role of the person in charge is to be a facilitator, coach, developer, catalyst or enabler. The key point here is that these support roles must be recast as managerial, where management is properly upgraded to encompass such activity. We must rid ourselves of the currently popular myth that these ways of behaving constitute leadership.

Here is why “leaders” (in the conventional sense) cannot fully empower employees. The problem is that our conventional concept of leadership is paternalistic and disempowering at its very core. To see this, think of one of the colloquial uses of the word “leadership” – what a tour guide does. Suppose you are with a group of tourists in a foreign country and you have signed up for a guided tour. When the group is fully assembled, you say to your tour guide: “OK, we are all here. Lead the way. We are in your hands.” The clear implication of this request is that the tourists are powerless to find their own way and, thus, totally dependent on the “leader” to guide them.  The tour guide might “empower” them to stop occasionally to visit some shops along the route, but this is pretty minimal empowerment and it doesn’t lessen the group’s dependency on the tour guide to lead them throughout the tour and get them back to their starting point safely.

The bottom line is that our popular concept of leadership creates a feeling of dependency in employees. It is not entirely the manager’s fault. Employees are equally to blame. They collude with their managers in creating the expectation that being in charge means knowing where you are going and how to get there. Being a leader, in the conventional sense, means having some magical insight into the future that will guide us to a better world. This is a colossal myth and we need to get rid of it. Today, we recognize that those in charge don’t have all the answers because the world has become too complex. Hence, why new concepts of leadership are emerging thick and fast from every direction. We have shared leadership, relational leadership and level 5 leadership, to name a few. All of these new ideas are based on the recognition that no one person has all the answers and that new directions need to be decided by groups working and thinking together.

So far so good, but all of this is just a half-way house because we can’t seem to let go of the comforting myth that the “leader” is someone who has a special insight into reality that the rest of us lack. We won’t fully rid ourselves of the paternalistic overtones of conventional leadership with its associated dependency until we can bring ourselves to stop calling executives leaders. The truth is that they are managers, where management has been suitably reinvented to make it a supportive function rather than a narrowly controlling one. Think of the managers of sports people like Tiger Woods, for example, if that helps.

Leadership also needs to be reinvented. If leadership can be shown bottom-up by knowledge workers who champion new products or more efficient processes, then we need to define leadership as being nothing more than showing or promoting a better way. It is critical to notice that promoting a new product to senior management has no implication that the knowledge worker will be involved in implementation. Leadership thus comes to an end once the target audience buys the need to change. Crucially, this concept of leadership is totally separate from management.

This is not to say that executives cannot show leadership. But there is a world of difference between “showing leadership” and “being a leader.” In the former case you are engaged in an occasional activity. In the latter you are something by virtue of who you are or the role you occupy. This is a dominating, ongoing position rather than an occasional activity. Executives show leadership by promoting change. As soon as they switch to getting the change implemented by working through people, they have donned a managerial hat. If there is resistance during implementation, then the executive can provide a further, one-shot injection of leadership, but most of the work associated with execution requires effective management, not leadership. Everything to do with motivating and coordinating the people who execute the change needs to be seen as good management, not leadership.

More fully empowering employees doesn't mean letting them make fundamental directional decisions. It's about recognizing them as showing leadership, which is about influence. Senior executives, accountable to shareholders, need to decide among the proposals made via bottom-up leadership. Executives are effectively customers or investors in this context. But making decisions on any bottom-up proposals is management, not leadership. Because leadership entails influence, all decision making is managerial action. Top level decision making is only mistaken for leadership because conventional leadership is a confused mixture of management and leadership. Thus, pushing leadership downward must be done in conjunction with reframing it as an influence process, not a decision making one.

Benefits of Reframing Leadership and Management

The largest benefit of this shift in perspective is greater empowerment for all employees. This is a huge culture change, however. Neither executives nor employees have created the mess we currently call leadership. It stems from our biological drive to form ourselves into hierarchies of power, but this form of organization has zero survival advantage in a world that has become so complex and fast changing. This is because, in a war of ideas, the power to lead organizations has shifted from what it takes to gain the top slot to the power to think creatively and develop new products. Leadership needs to shift accordingly.

To rid ourselves of this debilitating culture, employees need to be supported to cast off their dependency, their fear of thinking for themselves and their reluctance to challenge their managers. Simultaneously, managers need to become more receptive to upward influence. Employees who promote a better way should be inspired by the thought that they are showing leadership rather than just making timid suggestions for the real leaders to decide upon. This is what organizations that depend on rapid innovation need to start doing if they seriously want to inspire, engage and retain their core talent.

For more on this way of viewing leadership and management, see my other FastCompany blogs or my book: Burn: 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006.

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