The paradox of empowerment.

Author:Baker, Wayne E.

Effective empowerment means letting go and taking control. CEOs who thrive in this paradox tap people power--the only sustainable competitive advantage.

Empowerment is the mantra of the 1990s. Many CEOs chant it; fewer achieve it. A chief reason is the paradox of empowerment: Empowerment means letting go while taking control. These two actions seem contradictory. Indeed, this paradox traps many CEOs and undermines their attempts to transform their corporations.

Successful CEOs embrace the paradox of empowerment. Such leaders understand their responsibility to create the right environment in which people flourish on behalf of the company. They transform the company by intervening--sometimes in drastic ways--to change the way people work, relate, think, and feel. Yet they also step back to let empowerment take root, grow, and thrive.

Like any paradox, the paradox of empowerment is full of traps. It ensnares CEOs who cannot accept or live in the contradiction of taking control and letting go. Such CEOs become abdicators or meddlers. Those who thrive in the paradox become coaches who learn how to cultivate true empowerment.


Abdicators fail, because they let go but don't take control. These CEOs inform their people, "You're empowered," but forsake their responsibility to intervene and make fundamental changes.

Abdicators talk empowerment with great enthusiasm, spreading the word in speeches, memos, videos, and press conferences. But it's still business as usual. They don't establish clear goals, shared values, or empowering mechanisms. The CEO of a large bank, for example, declared 1992 the "Year of Empowerment," but did nothing to transform the organization--no changes in basic work processes, no reorganization into teams, no re-education and skills training. Two years later, the company remains a traditional hierarchy, a dysfunctional assortment of silos.

Meddlers fail, because they grab control but can't let go. In their hearts, such CEOs fear genuine empowerment. Self-managed teams, for example, don't fit their view of the CEO's role. An empowered work force appears to leave no role for the chief executive. So, they micromanage, demand immediate results, ride herd, and second-guess. People quickly learn to "delegate upward," never taking ownership of processes, products, and tasks.

Coaches understand their paradoxical role. They set the game plan: mission, goals, strategies. They make changes in infrastructure to create an empowering environment. They enable their people to be the best by providing the support the team needs. But coaches don't play the game.

Coaches know the critical difference between intervention and interference. Consider Jerre Stead, CEO and chairman of Dayton, OH-based AT&T Global Information Solutions (formerly NCR Corp.), whose business card reads "Head Coach." (Employees are called "associates.") "I work hard at transferring ownership," Stead says. "I work very hard at not getting down into the details. Not from not knowing the details, by the way, and that's hard for people to figure out. But not getting into the details. Because if you do, you take away empowerment."


Empowerment demands a new breed of CEO, one who thrives in the paradox of empowerment. If the CEO of yesterday's command-and-control corporation was the military chieftain, then the CEO of tomorrow's corporation is the philosopher-king.

As a philosopher, the CEO develops a comprehensive theory of the corporation as a society. This theory includes an ideology or system of beliefs about human nature, superordinate goals, and shared values, and it encompasses a...

To continue reading