Empowering people (even when they don’t want it)

2016 Savage Race October 8, 2016 at Kennedyville, Md.

When I first came across this coaching tool, a lot fell into place. It explained so many successes and failures. It answered questions about the internal contradictions of “empowerment.” It framed empowerment without force or judgement from the senior person and without dropping the junior straight in the deep end.

This magic framework is called the Ladder of Leadership. Created by L. David Marquet (Turn the Ship Around) and Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People), it coaches leaders in the language of empowerment with these questions:

Marquet/Covey Ladder of Leadership

The senior leader assesses the junior’s experience level and coaches at (hopefully!) the right level : observation, interpretation, or action. That senior leader gently shifts conversations up the ladder over time, thereby transferring responsibility, as both parties gain confidence.

The approach is great for imparting context-specific judgement, which is hard or impossible to teach in the abstract. Unlike some other personnel management models, it even works when the senior doesn’t know all the answers.

I love this approach for many reasons, not least because it bypasses the Cultural Myths of Empowerment. It allows a junior leader to find their own level, rather viewing empowerment as on-off, success-fail. The framework works for any junior, no matter how devoid of “leadership potential” anyone claims they are. Everyone can be nudged upwards.

The language of Level 5 “I intend to…” is especially powerful. For a typical leader-leader situation, boundaries of responsibility are often unclear. The intent signal— not quite asking permission, but also not charging ahead recklessly — strikes a perfect balance.

As Marquet says in Why Motivating Others Starts With Using the Right Language,

With a little bit of awareness you can peg where people are on this continuum and coax them up. As you move up, shifting control and psychological ownership to the subordinate, their minds will engage, and typically involvement and passion will follow.

This approach has worked for me, as both the junior and senior leader, with all the powerful, motivational consequences Marquet promises.

I hear people questioning all the time how to encourage others to take more responsibility, or how to get started with empowered teams. This. Do this. It takes a while to get where you want to be, but it’s sustainable change that allows each human being to contribute to the best of their ability.