Take empowerment back

Nick Mackeson-Smith
3 min readMay 29, 2020
Photo by Michael Rosner-Hyman on Unsplash

I’ve read much about the perils of shifting from a command and control style of leadership over to something that is more dispersed, and therefore less “controlled”. I’ve experienced the shift first hand through being part of a large NZ Telco’s agile transformation.

One article I read recently talked about how agile was giving rise to “abdication leadership” — getting so far out of your team’s way, and empowering them so much that you might as well not be there. The critique of empowerment has become deafening, and it’s frustrating.

I’ve seen some of the bad behaviours that are causing the problems — they’re not new. They’ve got a flash new name, that’s all. It used to be called being a terrible manager. I remember past leaders I’ve worked with who have been as useful as a chocolate tea pot when you needed them the most. When the proverbial hits the fan, they are nowhere to be seen, and you are left with a whole load of mess to clean up. Or (worse, if you value autonomy as much as I do), you are “empowered” to make decisions and drive initiatives, and then someone keeps jumping in and making decisions for you or undermining you. There is nothing more demotivating or exhausting.

For the lazy manager, giving away work because you have no intention of doing it and you want someone else to do it for you used to be as easy as claiming it was “an important development opportunity”. The reality was frequently far from the truth.

Now, there is an even easier way to shift stuff off the lazy manager’s plate — the word “empowerment”.

Empowerment is generally a very good thing; it places trust in people, it gives them an opportunity to own something for themselves, it gives them the ability to make decisions, and it gives them an opportunity to be more visible for their efforts and achievements. When used well, it’s a very effective way of getting great outcomes for your people and your organisation.

The issue is the underlying mindset of the leader, and the associated behaviour that goes along with it — not the use of the word. It’s certainly not the fault of agile, as these bad behaviours have been around for a very long time.

It’s pretty easy to tell what kind of leader you are interacting with (or are being) by making some quick observations:

Table showing expected behaviours and red flags

Next time you see a red flag behaviour, get curious. Ask a question about where the behaviour is coming from. Ask what their intention is. Ask if they had considered a different course of action. Express surprise at their choice of behaviour.

It’s time to take back empowerment from the lazy managers.

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Nick Mackeson-Smith

An expert in leadership development, executive coaching, agile transformation, learning and development, culture change and employee experience.