Empowering Leadership: what does this actually mean?

This week’s blog post is by guest blogger Narelle Hess.

“The wicked leader is he who the people despise. The good leader is he who the people revere. The great leader is he who the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” Lao Tzu

 I recently attended the Career Development Association of Australia (CDAA)’s leadership forum in Canberra for current and emerging leaders. During the course of the forum we examined the characteristics of leaders that had influenced our career. Our latest online poll ranked these characteristics very similarly to our group at the forum:

#1 = Empathetic, engaging and empowering of people – 38%

– Honest, clear and transparent communication – 31%

– Intelligent, confident decision-making – 13%

– Forward-thinking, proactive, innovative style – 10%

– Dynamic, charismatic, confident demeanour – 8%

So what does “empowering of people” actually mean?

During the leadership forum we had the pleasure of watching Benjamin Zander’s video ‘the art of possibility’* where, on leadership, Benjamin noted that after 20 years of being a world-class conductor of an orchestra he realised he is the only the person in the orchestra who doesn’t make a sound – his power depends on his ability to make other people powerful.

During the course of the forum, I was struck by a reflection by one of the participants which demonstrated her empowerment – “I never knew I could be a leader until I was invited to this forum”. Empowerment is about helping individuals realise a potential they didn’t even know was possible.

Once empowered, individuals need honest, clear, and transparent communication. Employee’s capabilities often live up to a supervisor’s expectations. But did you know that this has more to do with a Supervisor’s behaviour based on these expectations, rather than an employee’s actual capabilities? When a supervisor has high expectations they are more likely to assign difficult and specific goals to employees and also provide these employees with more learning opportunities, which results in employees being more engaged in the learning opportunities and improved performance accordingly**. What expectations of performance are you communicating to your team members, what self-fulfilling prophecy are you creating? Benjamin Zander began the term by assigning each class member an A, rather than a standard to live up to, the ‘A’ became a possibility to live into.

I have had the very good fortune of working with leaders that both empower and lead me with expectations of success. How do you ensure you are a leader who empowers – making other people powerful with expectations of success?

* Zander, B. (2009). Classical music with shining eyes. Retrieved July 25, 2010, from www.ted.com/index.php/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html

 ** Bezuijen, X.M., van den Berg, P.T., van Dam, K. & Thierry, H. (2009).Pygmalion and employee learning: The role of leader behaviors. Journal of Management, 35, 1248-1267.