The leadership ideal of empowering others, to make someone stronger and more confident, is a bit of a misnomer. Despite our best intentions, we cannot make someone stronger. We cannot make someone, well, anything. We can only create spaces where all the “someones” in our sphere of influence are able to find their strength and improve their confidence. This is no small feat, but there are some actions we can incorporate into our own behaviors to help create empowering spaces.
- Showing Up. Being physically present may not always be possible, but the importance of people seeing us, particularly those of us with leadership positions, sends a powerful message. The more we are present with others, the less room there is for unrealistic ideas about who we are. Togetherness is grounding, and when those around us see us as real, tangible people, we become more relatable and approachable. We also have far more opportunities to lead by example.
- Engaging People. Engagement involves building relationships with all types of people—not just those who are most like us. When we limit our relationship-building to only those who think and act like us, we create cliques, discourage diversity, and suppress a speak-up culture.
- Helping Teammates. Helping our peers and those in our natural work groups leads to building community. A strong sense of community encourages the members to work together and collaborate more while discouraging the competitive mindsets that can tear teams apart.
- Challenging Leaders. Sometimes, our leaders are wrong. It’s not because they are bad leaders. It’s just because they are people. Part of our humanity is our inherent nature to be imperfect. Sometimes, they don’t have all the information and make decisions that beg for adjusting. Sometimes, the pressure to move forward leads them to forget a stakeholder. Challenge decisions, ask for the why, and bring new information to the table as often as possible. And leaders: let yourself be challenged without taking it personally. Challenge helps us to grow.
- Stretching People. The art of professional development involves allowing people to work on projects that are outside of their typical comfort zone. Doing it well involves also providing the tools and support they need, including the space to make mistakes and learn, without leaving them hung out to dry. Getting to know not only existing strengths but interests and potential will aid in ensuring we guide others to projects and endeavors that will broaden their experience without stretching them too thin.
- Aligning Around a Mission or Common Goal/Purpose. Finding the passion and purpose of any group of people is one of the most important discoveries we can make as we seek to create and maintain empowering spaces. When we have a common goal, a sense of purpose that unites us, we can rally to that cause and obtain success as a group. Group cohesion and successful projects greatly increase the confidence of the individual members: “When WE did it, I was part of that we.”
- Let Go. The simplest and most effective way to help others to feel empowered is to let go of control. The act of empowering is allowing others to have control over their own situation. Be it work, social, or homelife, the easiest thing we can do to help others grow in strength and confidence is to let them make their own choices.
Empowerment is not an easy part of leadership, because empowering others is more about letting go and less about what you can do. We’ve all heard the saying, “If you give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The old adage is true—but you have to let go of the pole and let him fish for himself. He might make mistakes like breaking the line, snagging some water plants, or losing the fish he was sure was in the net; and our job as leaders is to let him make those mistakes. Each will help him to grow in skill and confidence. You may occasionally be called to give him an extra line, but ultimately, the only way he can learn to feed himself is to be in control of his own learning process. That is empowerment.
George. B. (2010). True North: Discover your authentic leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.