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Empower Your Team: Prize the Wild Tiger

“We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.”

Stephen Vincent Benet, Litany for Dictatorships, 1935

“The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.”

Aneurin Bevan, quoted by Michael Foot, circa 1950’s

A brief preface on one of the above attributes. Bevan was a prominent Labour Party politician in Great Britain for over thirty years. He is largely credited with championing free point-of-service medical care for all Britons. He was an unapologetic socialist. I’ve taken the quote here for illustration purposes, not for a political statement.

“To empower” is not synonymous with “to abdicate.”

Obviously you cannot micro-manage every aspect of a project. You can establish principles, develop guidelines, set control mechanisms in place, and delegate tasks.

Then give the horse its own lead.

As to abdication, don’t assign tasks and then walk blithely away (see Leadership principle: “Ensure Tasks are Understood, Supervised, and Accomplished”) without establishing a benchmark goal. Then treat the goal with gravity.

In the military, inspection of weapons, gear, and even personal hygiene is normal and seemingly too frequent. But it is a foolish commander who does not inspect what he expects. If a marine, or employee, breaks his back to meet a benchmark, then the leader must inspect what was required. This is the formative opportunity to recognize both good and bad work.

Getting people to take initiative is not easy, yet it can be more difficult to allow the team members to run, especially in a rigid environment. Wholesale initiative on wide-ranging work topics can be interesting to discuss informally, but we always show due caution on the big initiative taken during the normal business cycle.

Maybe that person with the great flash of activity was under-dispatched. A lack of initiative may be a sign of an overwhelmed or overburdened employee.

By all rights a leader gives assignments to people based on organizational objectives first, and with an expectation of success, second. We do not give immediate, urgent, or big big jobs to marginal employees. The axiom “if you want something done, give it to a busy person” rings true no matter what business you are in. That “go-to” person takes bags of initiative every hour of the day, through delegation, separation of major and minor, and steamrolling over obstacles. Does your personal initiative match the expectation you have for your people?

The employee who dares to fail greatly should be encouraged, not chastised. If all your people sat on their hands and never took a legitimate risk, you’d never make a dime. Prize the wild tiger. It is easier for a sergeant to calm a marine down than try to breathe life into one who is recalcitrant, or worse, lazy.

All of us want more responsibility. That’s why we are students of leadership. Remember that in our eagerness to please or show-off or achieve, we can sometimes over-commit our capacity to deliver the goods. Caution, again. Do what you promise, and make sure your people do the same.

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