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Look around the room.  Do you see a lamp?  Amazing piece of equipment, isn’t it?  It is an engineering wonder.  It has a specific purpose.  It has probably been placed in a position that can best make use of it unique enlightening function.  If properly maintained and provided adequate resources, it will be ready for action when called upon.  Reach over and turn it on.  Does it work?  Great. Now, reach out and separate it from its source of energy. Unplug it. Take away its power.  How well does it work now?   Obviously without power going to it, the lamp is just an interesting hat rack collecting dust.

Human beings are not as easy to turn on.  Their on/off switches are not as obvious and require more creativity and preparation to uncover. Human beings need more than a light bulb every six months.  On the other hand, like the lamp, members of your organization have a purpose and are placed in positions most likely to enhance the organizational vision.  And, like the lamp, they need power to do their jobs well. People can also become interesting hat racks collecting dust when not given the power to reach their full potential.

Empowerment is not a trendy concept or an organizational myth. It is smart business practice. Empowerment of employees is a priority in creative, modern, enlightened, forward looking organizations. Its definition is no mystery. To empower the individual, organizational leadership must communicate openly and honestly, listen routinely and carefully, delegate important tasks, build trust, decentralize decision making, and expect participation from all members of the work group.

Empowerment implies that the organizational leadership not only delegates tasks, they delegate discretion. Decision making moves to the individuals closest to the problem.  Customers and co-workers who want a decision will get one rather than have to seek satisfaction further up the ladder. 

Another hallmark of organizational empowerment is that the leadership does not simply ask questions, they listen intently to the answers.  The organization has in place mechanisms to solicit ideas, suggestions and recommendations.  Further, the most dramatic and effective steps in empowerment are for the leadership to consider the ideas carefully and implement those suggestions that make sense, can be funded, are innovative and/or are worth the investment of time and resources. 

What is the payoff of empowerment? Shared discussion leads to shared goals which, in turn, lead to shared responsibility. This means the completion of goals will generate shared success. Arbitrarily demanding accountability, which is some people's definition of leadership, will result in compliance. Empowerment, on the other hand, will lead to commitment.  “Nothing succeeds like success.”

Leaders should organize the team, delegate wisely, encourage independent thinking, reinforce self-actualized behavior and solicit frequent feedback. A hard working, self directed, independent team should be the goal of every leader. The true power of a leader is measured by the impact of that leader when she is not in the room.  If her presence is felt and people are diligently doing their best to implement their shared vision, they have been empowered. If they are waiting for her to return to get direction or, worse yet, are taking advantage of her absence to reduce their productivity and goof off, they are not.

For those of you seeking empowerment, you have a special opportunity to control the direction of the organization yet, simultaneously, have an awesome responsibility. It is not enough to ask for more autonomy, more power, more input, more feedback, and more authority. A member of an organization embracing a culture of empowerment must use that personal and professional power to solve problems and meet organization goals. You must use the feedback you receive from your leaders and peers for development and accept accountability for your actions, ideas and decisions. With ownership comes obligation.  When you are ready for this responsibility, you are prepared for empowerment.

Remember the parable of the two stone masons building a brick structure? When asked, “What are you doing?” the first mason irritably snapped, “I am laying bricks, what does it look like I am doing?”  The second mason was asked, “What are you doing?” He looked up, smiled and replied, “Why, I am building a beautiful library.  It will be here for generations for students to use. Would you like to see the picture?” Which mason has adopted the vision?  Which one has been empowered and has become self directed?  Which one is a breeze to lead?


Nordstroms, has found a very simple definition of empowerment.  The following is from their personnel manual. “Rule #1: use your good judgment at all times.  There will be no other rules.”  The department store notorious for impeccable customer service. I rest my case.