Photo by bokeh burger on flickr

The Irony of Empowerment

A while back I had the privilege of attending a play written by one of my favorite organizational authors, Barry Oshry. It was a brilliant play about organization and empowerment, and one of the lines really struck me and stuck with me. The line was delivered by a character who worked for an empowering leader, right after that leader had been fired for his unconventional ways. As the character lamented the loss of such an amazing, empowering boss, he asked a pleading question of his coworkers: “Who will empower us now?”.

I found the intentional irony in the statement absolutely delightful; for of course it is a fundamentally disempowered victim’s stance to need someone else to empower you. And it pointed to the irony of that leader’s well-intended work: in heroically “empowering others” within a disempowering corporate culture, he was still filling the role of the heroic leader, which paradoxically put others in the role of a disempowered victim – even though that wasn’t his intent.

With today’s understanding of the value of empowerment, I find the irony in this story well worth remembering. An environment where leaders have to empower others is fundamentally a disempowering environment – one which uses heroic top-down leadership to get beyond heroic top-down leadership, thus fundamentally relying on the very thing it seeks to transcend.

An Empowering System

So what else is the noble, well-intended leader to do? Certainly empowering others is better than not, right? Yes, I think so; I’d choose heroically empowering others over simply going with the status quo, and it’s exciting to see so many leaders choosing that route today. And when they’re ready to take another step beyond that, I think there’s a way to change the game altogether.

It’s fairly simple actually, at least in concept (in practice is another matter). To move beyond leaders who empower others, we need a system that empowers everyone within – just as constitutional democracies do not require benevolent dictators who “empower others”, because the system itself holds a space for deeper liberty. Likewise, when the core authority structure and processes of an organization fundamentally hold a space for everyone to have and use power, and do not allow anyone – even a leader – to dominate others with their power, then we no longer need to rely on leaders who empower others. Instead we have something much more powerful: a space where we can all find our own empowerment in service of a larger purpose – where we can all be leaders – and a system that holds that space regardless of the stance of any one individual, whatever their position.

Concretely, this requires a new power structure for the organization, and new processes which hold and distribute authority, rather than leaders doing so through autocratic decree. To avoid this new system itself just being another autocratic decree, it must be woven into the legal bylaws and operating structure of the organization, at least once its effectiveness is clear. And, in a final bid to irony, this will take leaders who empower a system to empower others, by heroically and permanently releasing their authority into the system’s embrace.

This article was originally published on October 28, 2010 at