What Stops Leaders from Empowering Others?

The research firm Universum recently queried over 2,000 business leaders and professionals, asking:

What’s the most important quality that you expect future leaders to possess?

The #1 response (41%):

They empower their employees.


It became a business buzzword twenty years ago, and has been in and out of vogue ever since.At it’s core, it’s about enabling others to do things on their own.

Most leaders I work with strive to be empowering.

But there’s a big difference between striving and succeeding.

What stops leaders from empowering others? What makes it so hard?I got a first-hand taste of this empowerment challenge working with a team that I spend a lot of time with:  my family.

My 11 year old son Alexander is in the fourth grade.  His school recently held a “walk or bike to school” day, to promote physical activity.Alexander asked me if he could bike to school on his own.  (The school’s about a mile from our house.)

Some qualities about Alexander you should know:

  • He’s incredibly responsible. Always has been.

  • He’s very safety conscious.

  • He has a great sense of direction.

  • He’s ridden the route to and from school many times with me.

  • He stops at busy intersections, gets off and walks his bike after checking no cars are coming.

So can I ride to school, Dad?I paused.

I know all these qualities of my son.  I love these qualities.  Yet, even so, I noticed that my first impulse was to say “No”.

Thoughts flew through my head:

  • What if a car doesn’t see him?

  • What if he gets a flat tire?

  • What if he can’t get his bike lock unlocked?

  • What if the bike gets stolen?

  • What if a policeman stops him and hassles him for being a biking “free-range” kid? (This has made the national news lately.)

That first instinct was to shut things down.

But I waited to respond.  In the pause, I questioned myself:

Where are these thoughts coming from?

I was doing what psychologists call catastrophizing: creating worst-case scenarios in my mind.

My fear was talking: I was afraid to let go of control.

Generally, I’d like to think of myself as an empowering leader. But in that moment of fear, empowerment was the last thing on my mind.

I wasn’t interested in serving anyone else.  I had no interest in helping Alexander fulfill his potential.  I was only interested in my own selfish need to preserve the safety of the status quo.

And if that wasn’t enough, my ego felt under attack.That ego-voice was shouting at me:

Hey, Alain!  If Alexander can now ride alone to school, then you are irrelevant.  Useless.

I wasn’t ready to give up my own need to be needed.I was blind to the opportunity that biking to school was offering.  Not only would Alexander  developing more responsibility, I’d be less locked into my role as parent-chauffeur. So, Dad, whaddya think, can I ride to school by myself?

All of these thoughts–the catastrophizing, justifying, questioning–had happened in about three seconds of clock time.

Thankfully, I’d stayed in that pause of reflection without responding.I came to my senses.  I remembered my primary charge: to steward my son’s growth into greater autonomy.

Sure, Alexander, you can ride to school.I’ll admit it:  The micro-manager in me almost blurted out:

But make sure to wear your helmet!  But I caught myself in time.(n.b. No surprise ending here. Everything turned out just fine that day. Alexander now wants to ride to school most mornings.)

Where have you seen leaders (you or others) unwilling to let go of control? What do you think kept them from empowering others?  What were the consequences? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.  

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