top of page

Boomerang Empowerment

Leaders, what happens when you train team members for autonomy and they give the power back?

It's baffling, right? Like, who wants to continue being told what to do? Who wants to feel like they have no space for creativity or innovation? Who wants to work in an environment where they feel policed? The opposite is also true: what leader wants to be exhausted by team members who clip their own wings, refuse to fly, and then look back for play-by-play instructions? What leader wants to play cops and robbers with teams?


Does this read a bit personal, like I have skin in the game? Good. Because it is, and I do. We all do.

I checked in with my professional friends: educators, grade school and adult counselors, HR consultants, peers at and under my age/generation. The educated guesses are mixed. Blame goes to lack of preparation for work in an office environment, from working with others and contributing to a team, to wanting to change policies and workflows in the first week of employment. Blame can be shared with everyone being a "winner" in school so no child has to learn how to lose and work through disappointment. Or, there is the finger pointed at parents without skills producing entitled young adults without skills. Then there is the general apathy and ignorance of Millennials and Gen Z'ers who interview well, misrepresent themselves, and then remain inflexible for adjustments -- and therefore growth -- in the workplace.

If any of this is true, then the yield looks something like people who cannot work without praise or understanding. They work in fear, as if chained to old systems of permission and personnel food chains. It's sad really. It's the leader-follower model, and that clones instead of grows. Before reading Turn the Ship Around! by Retired Navy Captain L. David Marquet, I pushed empowerment. It's a mark of servant leadership: share the power, push people according to their strengths and then create opportunities to stretch and discover new strengths. Then I adopted Marquet's perspective: emancipate, do not empower.

Empowerment is needed to undo all those top-down, do-what-your're-told, be-a-team-player messages that result from the leader-follower model.... Empowerment does not work without the attributes of competency and clarity...

Emancipation results when teams have been given decision-making control and have the additional characteristics of competency and clarity. You know you have an emancipated team when you no longer need to empower them. Indeed, you no longer have the ability to empower them because they are not relying on you as their source of power. (2012, pp. 212-213)


I love the idea of emancipation, first for obvious reasons as an African American, emancipation is an important word. Secondly though, emancipation inspires the belief and practice that team members are already free. They can learn anything, do anything, can speak up for themselves and for the work they do. Emancipation is exciting, albeit with growing pains. Treating team members like free people is something I added to my philosophy of leadership.

Then I had trainees decline. Over and over and over again. They declined emancipation. It was not expressly stated, "No, I do not want to be accountable, responsible, and autonomous." Their actions declined emancipation. They reached for empowerment, but I had no power to give them. They had the power already to succeed in their roles. Competence? Yes. Clarity? That depends. Notes that could be modified according to their learning style, instructional videos, and actual humans who could answer questions and provide context. Response? Well, I thought you said... Or, I just thought I could do it this way...

In all of my leadership readings, discussions, blackboard posts, etc., there was no framework considered for teams who did not follow, engage, or teams who "returned" the power to work freely with competence and clarity. So, I have to read the situation, read the people, consider my leadership, check in with my non-negotiables, and forge ahead.

Leaders, who are we when teams (even small ones) do not want to grow, learn, stretch, serve, and work with freedom? How do we serve without the burden of the team's undone or incorrect work? How long do we try to engage them before their silence is louder than their competence or clarity? These and other tough questions force us to assess our office dynamics and consider different strategies. And, our future hiring procedures. How do we prevent hiring people who want their daily tasks dictated instead of learning to grow and thrive autonomously in a role?

Curious for your insights. Let's have them.

bottom of page