12: The Law of Empowerment

Leaders accomplish the most when they empower, rather than seek to control, their followers. A quote from Theodore Roosevelt: "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."

The desire to have personal power is often in conflict with the desire to be surrounded by highly effective people. But highly effective people cannot be "picked" from the trees, nor are they particularly enthusiastic at the prospect of giving their support to a tyrant who wishes to dominate and control them. A leader who seeks to gather power will fail to develop the potential of his people, and will repel rather than attract (or cultivate) strong followers.

Competent people seek a leader who respects their competence and will put it to good use, who gives them direction but does not get in their way, and who helps them to develop their competence rather than preventing them from applying it. Such leaders will attract and retain good people, and develop them toward excellence. This is the value of empowerment.

Case Study: Henry Ford

The author presents a behind-the-scenes look at Henry Ford, who started with the ingenious idea of building a vehicle that virtually anyone could afford, but then lost his grip on the market by keeping too firm a grip on his people.

Simply stated, Ford was a tyrant. He never wanted to change or improve upon his original design, and was intolerant of anyone who suggested improvement was possible. Anecdotes include his smashing prototypes, undermining or dismissing those who suggested improvements. As a result, he ran off any person of ability who worked for him, the company lost market share to other auto makers, and the firm was at one point losing a million dollars a day - in the 1940's, when that amount was far more significant than it is today (EN: researched this: $1 in 1940 would be worth about $15 today).

The story continues to Ford's Grandson, Henry II, who at first helped the company to recover by bringing in executives from other firms (primarily GM, which had by then dwarfed the firm), but eventually felt threatened by their ability and began pitting them against one another, preventing anyone from being able to accomplish much of anything. This kept Henry II firmly in power, but once again caused his most capable employees to leave and his firm to flounder in the market.

Reluctance to Empowerment

The author considers some of the common reasons that leaders are reluctant, or even opposed, to empowering their people:

In all, the difficulty many leaders find in empowering their people come down to problems of the ego - whether from an unrealistic high sense of self-importance that leads him to fail to recognize the competence of others, or from an unrealistically low sense of self-importance that leads him to fear the competence of others.

Leading by Lifting Up Others

The user turns again to quotations and anecdotes to suggest the importance of empowering others:

He dwells on Lincoln a bit, particularly in the way he managed his generals during the civil war. It was generally accepted at the time that all the greatest generals had joined with the Confederacy - but Lincoln's management of his leaders enabled them to be more effective in the field. An excerpt from a letter to General Meade is provided, in which Lincoln states: "You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters. Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise ... All forces within the sphere of your operations will be held subject to your orders."

To go further, Lincoln maintained faith in his leaders by shielding them from dishonor. One biographer noted that Lincoln would accept public responsibility, personally absorbing the blame for battles lost and opportunities missed - he took a little damage, but he was strong enough to stand it, and his willingness to do so maintained the esteem and authority of his followers.

By contrast, Jefferson Davis was an autocrat, of whom one historian wrote "He used an excessive share of his energy in contentious and even litigious argument to prove he was right. He seemed to feel that if he were right that was enough; that it was more important to vindicate his own rectitude than to get results." He refused to delegate authority, micromanaged his generals, and suffered a devastating defeat as a direct consequence.

The Power of Empowerment

A critical factor in being able to empower others is faith in their abilities. The leader who regards his followers as inferior to himself will naturally feel the need to dominate and control them and prevent them from doing things on their own, and their mindless obedience means that the will carry out orders without question and do no worse, nor any better, than the leader would do if he had done these tasks himself.

In contrast, a leader who believes in his followers and respects their capabilities will give them direction, but otherwise trust them to achieve and objective, believing that they are capable of thinking for themselves and doing things better than the leader could have if he had done the task himself. And the vast majority of times, that's exactly how it will turn out.

The right perspective on leadership, that enables leaders to accomplish through others greater outcomes than he is personally capable of achieving, beings with humility to admit that followers contribute value to his team, and recognition that a leader's greatest contribution is in empowering his followers to put their skills to good use.