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If I Empower You, You are Still Within my Power

January 14, 2010

Updated May 10, 2011
I’ve been a long-time proponent of self-empowerment and have written about its role in effective leadership for many years. And it’s been something I’ve struggled with myself, having being locked into the subservient mindset and behaviour of which many of us have fallen.

Heroic Leadership–that those in positions of authority have all the answers and power–has unfortunately permeated society, and in some ways emasculated our collective ability to speak truth to power, whether it is within organizations or how we assert our desires to elected politicians. I believe that Heroic Leadership is an anachronism in today’s society and economy, and will become a liability to organizations and governments as we proceed deeper into a very uncertain future.

We have become enraptured with charisma, misinterpreting it for leadership. We underestimate our own capacity for helping effect positive change within organizations, our communities and the world at large. One glimmer of hope is Generation Y, which has been desperately trying to exert its mark but which has been creamed by the “Great Recession.”

There is hope. The sun always rises.

Two authors and consultants who have influenced my thinking in the past are Harrison Owen and Angeles Arrien. Both base their work on Native American spiritual teachings. Arrien’s excellent book The Fourfold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary serves as a guide to how we can live in greater harmony with the Earth, how we can develop better relations with one another, and how we can improve our personal leadership. Her words have helped guide me for the past decade: Be open to outcome, not attached to it. In a world of chaotic change and turmoil, these simple yet wise words serve us well.

Check out her work and especially this book.

Harrison Owen is the creator of Open Space Technology and author of several superb leadership books. Check out his recent video on Leadership in a Self-Organizing World”, in which he talks about the complexity of change, closed versus open systems, and the delusion of those in power believing they understand change and have the solutions. This is a very insightful presentation; be sure to watch it.

In his work in Open Space Technology and through his writings Owen talks about Four Immutable Laws of the Spirit, which help us to understand acceptance of an experience and then how to be creative with it. This approach contrasts with how we, as a society, prefer to resist change or force it in a certain direction:

1) Whoever is present are the right people
2) Whenever it begins is the right time
3) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
4) When it’s over, it’s over

I’ll always remember a statement that Owen made in his book The Spirit of Leader: If I empower you, to some extent you are still within my power. Reflect on these words for a moment. Remember Heroic leadership?

How often do we hear the Heroic Leadership refrain about “empowering employees.” In reality, no one can empower you; you can only empower yourself. The role of senior corporate leadership is to set the context, to create the environment where collaboration is fostered, creativity nurtured, mutual respect ingrained, vision created, leadership shared, and innovation valued.

Juxtaposed against self-empowerment, Heroic Leadership doesn’t stand a chance against the forces of positive change. Reject Heroic Leadership; embrace self-empowerment!

Finally, I would like to mention a fellow leadership blogger whose writings I admire and value: Bret L. Simmons. Check out Bret’s posts on taking personal responsibility, in which he talks about the work of Ira Chaleff “The Courageous Follower.” You’ll find Bret’s reflections inspiring and motivating. Be sure to leave comments on both Brett’s and my blogs.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2010 6:13 pm

    Thanks Geoff for sharing your perspective. Yeah, I love Harrison Owen. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of some Open Space events in New Brunswick, both through work and community policing.

    Indeed, “management” as an entity unconsciously holds onto its mental model of who are the “right people” to include, promote, etc. The world’s changing faster than management and bureaucracies can adapt.

  2. January 14, 2010 3:23 pm

    Now there is some food for thought:
    “Whoever is present are the right people.”

    Quite the juxtaposition to “get the right people in the right seats on the bus” that we have been indoctrinated with over the past several years.

    Yet when faced with the uncomfortable reality of functioning in the living world, how often do we actually have the authority, resources and ability to get the “right people” in the “right seats”?

    Seems an ethos for the times – don’t waste the resources you already have.
    Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
    Applicable to our human resources? hmmm…

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