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Chapter 19: Technique 16: Empowerment

Today’s work communities are in a place in time that has changed drastically from that of former work communities. Today’s inner leaders are in relationships with people who are essentially volunteers. Their coworkers refuse to be treated the way they once were treated. As a group, today’s followers are better educated and far more independent, aware, and wanting. Pfeffer (1977) confirms that workers today want to achieve control over their environment and take action to realize this desire.


People are empowered when they individually accomplish collaborative and participative work with their leader and coworkers. Empowerment appeals to the human values of independence, self-reliance, and individualism. It allows people to self-actualize on the job via interesting, challenging work and responsible assignments. People want to make a difference; and when inner leaders empower them to do so, they support their deep psychological needs. Empowered people are more self-confident, self-controlled, and self-motivated. In the act of empowerment, inner leaders gain willing followers.

In its simplest definition, empowerment means “to enable.” It is freeing followers to act independently, controlled only on the basis of their results, not activity, events, or methods. The leader’s actions to empower also involve sensitizing coworkers to their power and training them in its full use. Empowerment endows followers with the power required to perform a given act or set of actions. It is granting others the practical autonomy to step out and contribute directly to job requirements. It does not mean the leader gives away his or her power; rather it involves adding to the power of coworkers. Empowering others is developmental of the leader’s human assets. No one is powerless. Empowerment is sensitizing coworkers to that fact and liberating them to respond accordingly.

Conger and Kanungo (1988) define empowerment in motivational terms. They say it means to enable rather than simply to delegate. Bennis (1982) says it involves helping people feel useful, assisting them in learning about their work and that of coworkers, and involving them in work-community planning and decision making. Empowerment helps make work exciting for followers. Witham and Glover (1987) conclude that empowered employees are more committed. Absent a sense of empowerment, workers respond by withdrawing their full talent, energy, or commitment.

In developing, rewarding, and enabling those around them, leaders are allowing the human assets with which they work to appreciate in value. The leader’s actions to empower also involve sensitizing coworkers to their power and training them in its full use. All leaders have the power to empower others (Reuss, 1987). Only inner leaders see empowering followers as essential to their success. Henry Miller said that the only way in which someone can lead us is to restore to their work colleagues a belief in their own capacity for self-guidance. That is empowerment.

Elements of Empowerment

Several ideas underlie empowerment. First, people achieve more when they feel the job is worth doing and is challenging enough to arouse their interests. Second, people need to be able to see how their work contributes to the final result. Third, people work harder and more consistently when they feel the result is morally worthwhile and valuable. Fourth, people work harder when there is mutual respect and concern for one another as human beings and mutual integrity among the work-community members. These ideas are appropriate for the chief executive of the work community as well as the lowest worker. Unfortunately, since most CEOs can use other techniques to get workers to do what they want, they do not empower their employees as much as inner leaders do.

Inner leaders empower people because empowered people work harder. They are more committed and attentive to their work when they can function independently and are allowed (encouraged, even) to make use of more of their talents, capacities, and creative selves. Enriching the job assigned to them so it is fuller, more demanding, more complex, and asks more of the total capacities of the follower is attractive to many workers. It increases personal motivation when leaders assign workers tasks that include some control over their work environment and discretion as to when and how work is done.

People who feel their leaders have concern for their personal, individual development and maturation as human beings are more committed to that leader. They will follow a leader whom they feel is concerned for them as individuals, quite apart from what they can do for the work community. Empowered, committed people are also more creative and innovative in their work. They produce more new ways to do the work that challenge past methods. Empowered people focus on their capacities and those of their coworkers. Empowered workers are more open to change, more supportive of change, and more involved in determining the direction of change in the work community. Empowered leaders are hypothesized to be innovative, upward influencing, inspirational, and less focused on monitoring to maintain the status quo (Spreitzer, De Janasz, and Quinn, 1999).

There is some risk inherent in empowerment of others. It requires the leader to trust in the essential goodness of followers. Leaders need to trust their followers, their talent, commitment, and capacity to do work independently and in different ways than the leader would use. This is a different mind-set than traditional leadership models. It requires leaders to be teachers of others as they communicate understanding of and commitment to a common vision of the work community’s future. This kind of trust, preceded by effective, appropriate training and values displacement, assures cooperative action even when the leader is not physically present.

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