Empowering Leadership

[A note to the reader: This is very much a working document of mine as I consider my views of empowerment and leadership. Please comment and add your thoughts or opinions. I’d love some pushback, too, if you happen to disagree with various aspects of what I have written.] 

Over the course of my life I have had the privilege of being in a wide variety of leadership roles. In nearly every stage of my life I have been a leader of some sort in various groups or organizations, whether it be in Boy Scouts, school, or ministry. Empowerment is a term and a concept that has been used in nearly every group I have been a part of. Empowerment is often a goal of most leadership roles that I have experienced. We are told that a good leader empowers those below themselves – gives autonomy, gives power and responsibility to those under one’s leadership. And yes, I believe this to be true in a sense. But how this is done exactly is almost never explained. It’s just assumed that a leader will empower others.

What is required for a leader to be able to successfully empower those under his or her influence? Well, I believe this is crucial to understand if a leader is to successfully and consistently empower others.

One of the issues to first note is that the term empowerment is often thrown around with the assumption that we understand what it means. We may say that it means to give power to others, but what does that look like when it’s acted upon? Oftentimes what people call empowerment in reality looks like delegation. What often happens is that a person in a leadership role will see someone else taking on various responsibilities and deem that person an up and coming leader and then gives that person more responsibilities. Or someone wants to be involved in some way, and a leader puts that person in a role that might fit what the person wants to do.

So without ever taking any leadership courses at a university, these are details and thoughts that I have learned myself along the way.

An empowering leader is self-aware and honest.

For a leader to really flourish and be empowering, there is a prerequisite of being willing to be self-aware and honest about themselves. This creates an environment for them to be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. It allows for them to see where they have succeeded and failed in various endeavors of the past. It allows for them to be able to first admit their mistakes, and then to learn from those mistakes for further application.

An empowering leader knows their own gifts, strengths, and weaknesses.

Everyone has aspects of themselves that are gifts. These are the skills and characteristics that seem to come naturally, almost a part of one’s personality. Some people are gifted in being able to speak publicly for example. They are able to speak clearly and creatively communicate their ideas, thoughts, and stories. Some are simply gifted in this area, while others are not. Some are gifted in humility. They are the types of people that do things behind the scenes and are not bothered when they are not recognized for the work that they do. Gifts are the aspects that come naturally to someone. They are the parts of the person that are a part of their identity – and have been for as long as people can remember.

Gifts may be used and shown everyday, but some can be left undeveloped. Strengths, however, are usually the gifts that have been developed and nurtured in such a way that they stand out as a part of our identity and have become parts of our everyday actions.

Strengths are the skills and characteristics that oftentimes come easy, but usually they have also been developed throughout one’s life. Gifts and strengths often overlap, but not always. The way I like to categorize strengths is that they are the skills and characteristics that we have been told stand out in us and that we find our confidence in. They are the skills and characteristics that through training or life’s various experiences have been nurtured. Some people might have developed the skill of being a quick and improvisational thinker. This is a skill that might not have necessarily come naturally to them in the past, but through various experiences and schooling they have developed the ability and are very good at it. Some people might have the characteristic of being patient. This isn’t necessarily something that came easily to them, but throughout their life have been told they are patient and have continued to develop this characteristic in such a way that it has become a strength that stands out in their interactions with others.

Everyone also has weaknesses. These are aspects and characteristics of people’s life that have not been nurtured or addressed. These weaknesses usually arise throughout our lives due to the complexities of our personalities and temperament mixed with our life’s experiences. Most people, starting from a very young age, create coping mechanisms and ways to process the things we witness or hear about that lend themselves to be counterproductive to nurturing healthy habits, skills, or characteristics. Oftentimes these weaknesses are no fault of our own necessarily, but they remain hidden because we usually don’t want to analyze our weaknesses. However, oftentimes we are well aware of our weaknesses, such as a short temper or a tendency to judge people, but are unwilling to do the work necessary to change them due to our own pride or even because of our shame.

Naturally we like to focus on our gifts and strengths. And it feels good when people acknowledge them. We feel valued when they are recognized. And that’s ok. An effective leader knows their strengths and gifts well – and usually, they rely on them every day. But it’s even more important for an effective leader to know their weaknesses.

There are many advantages to knowing your own weaknesses:

  • It illuminates the places in which you can grow.
  • It helps to show the kind of people to surround yourself with and to learn from.
  • It creates transparency with others and a sense of humility – a way to for others to see that you don’t have to act like you have it all figured out. Everyone has places in which they can grow.
  • It keeps you as a leader in a place where you’re willing to learn – to still be teachable.

An empowering leader learns when and where their strengths become weaknesses.

The thing with leadership is that it, like most everything in life, is not done in a vacuum. We work and do life with other people. Other people who have personalities and strengths and weaknesses of their own. When working with people, things can get messy pretty quickly. Personalities clash. People can get defensive, prideful, or power hungry.

Most people lean into their strengths to help them in their tasks, relationships, and jobs. And for leaders, it is often their strengths that helped them get to where they are. That’s fine and normal. But in leadership, strengths are not always strengths. Sometimes the strength that helped someone become a leader hinders their ability to continue to lead well. Let’s say someone is skilled in making quick and wise decisions. This skill helped them stand out as a confident leader. And it was one of the reasons this person quickly became a leader in whatever circle he or she was a part of. But once this person was a leader, the skill of quick decision making might not be as helpful as it had been. The leader now has a lot more people to consider than just him/herself. To make quick decisions might not be a good thing like it once had been. People could be overlooked, voices not heard, and therefore problematic for good leadership.

So a good leader will be able to recognize these types of potential situations. They are self-aware enough to be able to recognize how strengths that helped get them to where they are, may no longer be strengths.

An empowering leader understands the value of diversity.

Because good leaders realize that leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum, they see the value of those around them. They also don’t want surround themselves with people exactly like themselves. Diversity exists all around us, whether we can see it or not. There is diversity of race, which is what most people first think of when the word diversity is mentioned. Racial and ethnic diversity is such an incredible environment for empowering leaders. There are so many perspectives and backgrounds to listen to and learn from. Sometimes the act of simply listening to voices different from one’s own is an empowering act in and of itself. Being a voice for those whose voice is rarely heard or valued is a responsibility of an empowering leader. In fact, it may be a requirement of a truly empowering leader.

But diversity is not simply limited to racial and ethnic categories. There’s also diversity of age, gender, sexual orientation, theological background, socio-economics, political, and other cultural elements with people self-identify. An good leader understands that there is value in all this, and wants to understand and implement the strengths that come from all that diversity. A good leader recognizes this diversity and creates environments in which the diversity of voices, opinions, and beliefs can be spoken in a safe environment. That means the leader is first willing to be vulnerable before those he or she leads.

An empowering leader is relational.

This may be a very Western understanding of leadership, but I think it is very effective in any culture. We are relational beings, and I think we always appreciate it when leaders are approachable and relational. I believe that a good leader is willing to take the time to be truly relational with those he or she leads. He or she actually gets to know those around them. This means that a safe approachable space is able to be created. Being relational and approachable doesn’t undercut a good leader’s authority, it enhances it.

An empowering leader learns the strengths and weaknesses of those around him or her.

Because a good leader is relational, they are able to identify and learn the strengths and weaknesses of those around them. The leader is constantly people watching, observing those around them — noting how various individuals interact with each other, learning what they are passionate about, and what they value. The leader constantly keeps these notes in the back of their mind as they think about those they lead and serve.

What are some of the strengths of various individuals that are not getting utilized or recognized very well? Where are some of the weaknesses holding people back from growing or maturing as a person or potential leader? The leader then thinks about how various individuals could be empowered and given various responsibilities to tap into the their strengths and to help them overcome some of their weaknesses.

An empowering leader understands that true empowerment comes from the community, not from a leader.

This may be my most important insight. Something that I believe is unfortunately often misunderstood.

A leader is not someone who just recognizes a strength in an individual and then gives them responsibilities based on that strength. That’s delegation. It’s good the leader recognized the strength in that individual, but placing them in a place of power or giving them responsibilities isn’t necessarily empowering. It could be burdensome. The people they are leading might not appreciate their leadership style or strength. The individual’s weaknesses could be overshadowing their strengths.

A truly empowering leader understands that he or she is not the one who does the empowering — it’s the community that provides the empowerment. A leader is wise enough to place a person with certain strengths and weaknesses in an environment or community that will provide that empowerment.

An empowering leader appropriately places people, based upon their strengths and weaknesses, in environments that allow for their strengths to flourish and be recognized and their weaknesses to be nurtured.

This is critical for good leadership. If someone is a good at teaching and explaining things, then to place them in an environment in which they can teach others just makes sense. But the people that this person is teaching should also be willing learners. Maybe the person teaching is really great at explaining things, but severely lacks confidence. The people that surround this teacher should not just be willing learners, but encouragers as well. This group of learners could really encourage the teacher by vocally affirming his or her skills of teaching and explaining.

As a leader, it may even be important to let the group of learners in this situation know that this person is a really gifted and skilled teacher, but lacks confidence. Maybe the teacher also lacks tact as they teach or explain things, and the group of learners could provide feedback in a way which helps challenge some of the weaknesses that this teacher has. This allows for the teacher to have their strengths recognized, affirmed, and utilized while also aptly addressing their weaknesses in such a way that encourages growth. So in the end it is not the leader who actually does the empowering, it is the community. The leader simply helps create that an environment where empowerment can occur.

An empowering leader consults when possible with both the empowered person and the group or team they lead.

If the leader has successfully created an environment for a person to be empowered, then that leader doesn’t need to constantly be there. However, it is important to check in with the newly empowered individual. How are they feeling about their responsibilities? Do they feel that they have been able to use their strengths effectively? What has it been like to use those strengths? How have they been able to identify some of their weaknesses and perhaps start to lean into some of them?

It is also important to check in with the group when possible. From their perspective, what are things that are working? What are things that aren’t working as well? What have they enjoyed about the empowered individual? How have they grown under his or her leadership?


The model that I have just explained fits within situations where there the empowerment comes in the form of empowering leaders. But the key element in my opinion of true empowerment is that a community or a collective group of people is truly where empowerment is generated. It does not come from the top down. A leader may put the various pieces together or orchestrate events to occur – but the empowerment itself comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.

I recently read an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic in which he refers to Robert Nisbet’s distinction between power and authority. I think his thoughts on power and authority are a refined and advanced reflection on my ideals of empowerment that I have just discussed. But it also shows the  when people assume the power should come from the top down instead of the bottom up, major systemic issues can arise.

In his 1953 book The Quest For Community, conservative Robert Nisbet distinguishes between “power” and “authority.” Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is “based ultimately upon the consent of those under it.” Power, on the other hand, is “external” and “based upon force.” Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all. “Power arises,” writes Nesbit, “only when authority breaks down.”

 

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