Power has taken on tremendous meaning in our culture, but the bare-bones definition is “the ability to do something.”
Therefore, the word “empower” means “to give someone else the ability to do something.” As a leader, you do not have to give full authority over to your company to empower your team. It merely means you educate, train, and trust them to carry out a necessary task or to make a decision in the best interest of the company.
Empowerment is a robust leadership tool if you are wielding it properly. The way you empower can strengthen the value of your employees, build more prevailing customer experiences, and even be a preventative measure to unforeseen chaos.
Many leaders believe they are well versed in the skill of empowerment, but instead, they micromanage their team into another job.
How should you empower?
Empower Like a Window
Windows can be for mere observation, but are we compelled to go through the window and participate in the action? When we lead, sometimes we place our employees behind the window so we can manage all of the business. We lack trust in their competence, we don’t believe in their abilities, or we just can’t let go of what we love to do ourselves. But inviting your team through the window takes courage. Handing power over to your team takes courage. Why? Because you risk them making poor decisions with serious consequences; yet if you don’t do it, you impede their professional development.
I worked for a hotel that was designated a National Historic Landmark. We had a brilliant engineer named Vladan, who was empowered to redesign the hotels 500+ windows to become hurricane-resistant while still maintaining their exterior aesthetic. He showed me how flimsy the old windows were, bending with gentle pressure upon the center of the frame. They were pleasing to look at but unstable.
Vladan then showed me the design of the new windows. They looked the same, except when viewing them from the side. They were thicker, containing a full sheet of shatterproof glass, and embedded with steel. These windows were a game-changer for a historical landmark. Vladan’s autonomy on the project allowed him to be creative and utilize his full spectrum of talents. He was empowered to do what he loved to do and trusted he could accomplish such a complicated task.
As a leader, do you empower your team like an old window — where your words are weak, unsteady, inconsistent, and cave when the storms of change put exertion upon it? Or do you empower like a new window, where your words are powerfully crafted steel-framed centerpieces, protecting the best interest of the employee while being more efficient and influential?
It may sound funny to view the theme of empowerment through a window, but so often we experience our world through windows. If we as leaders see ourselves as these windows, we can invite others through to be a part of the experience rather than a mere observer. A team that becomes disempowered will feel absent from the bigger purpose of the company’s vision. A team invited through the window will fully engage their responsibilities because they know they have the support, safety, and proper framing of their leaders.
A perfect example of empowerment and leadership comes from the early days of General George Washington. Washington was sent to take over the Ohio Valley region and empowered to “make prisoners of or kill & destroy” all those who resisted British control of the area. During the battle, he surprised French soldiers and led his men into a massacre resulting in French Commander Jumonville’s murder upon surrendering. Nine other French soldiers were killed and scalped before Washington could stop it, an incident that became the cause of the French and Indian War.
The French vilified Washington as the epitome of dishonor, manifesting his resignation in the British Army Commission in 1758. Even though he was empowered to “make prisoners of or kill & destroy” those who resisted, his leader abandoned him. He went through the empowerment window and saw shame for it.
Washington was out of commission from 1758 to 1775 where he started the Continental Army and went on to win the American Revolution. How did someone shamed and decommissioned for a mistake go on to become one of the epitomes of leadership? He received a second chance. And he dwelled on all his experience of shame for years, transforming it into power.
There is an excellent song that Washington sings in the musical “Hamilton” where he empowers Alexander Hamilton to take command of a battalion and help end the Revolutionary War. In the song, he mentions his first battle, the shame, and most importantly, how he was empowered by looking through the window of history.
Washington belts out, “History has its eyes on you!” What empowering words! While we stare at the world through our windows, it’s history that is looking back at us!
Leadership is not about you. Every choice, action, and decision you make impacts not only your customer’s experience but directly affects the historical memories of all of your employees. They are either going to be developed, enhanced, and strengthened under your protective framework or crushed behind the weak window-pane of your unstable leadership. Tether yourself to empowerment because history is watching.