Empowerment: Taken or Given?

There’s power and then there’s empowerment. It has been about who has the former and who receives the latter. In the corporate context, leaders that are considered to be people centered follow a developmental style of management empowering with the hope of achieving employee self-actualisation. This is changing. The invitation from increasingly conscious leadership is that empowerment is self-regulating. Empowerment is a personal choice.


After many conversations and a lot of feedback about where they are CEO Tony Hsieh, of the online clothing company Zappos, decided to take drastic action. He sent his employees an email memo (provided to Fast Company, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh: Adopt Holacracy Or Leave) in which he offers them an ultimatum to move to a desired state of self-organization, self-management, increased autonomy, and increased efficiency. For better context, he recommended they read the two articles: Misperceptions of Self-Management and Five Crucial Competencies of Self-Management.

These articles highlight really interesting content about power and empowerment in an organisational context.

Frederic Laloux from Morning Star Self-Management Institute in his article Misperceptions of Self-Management says, “The right question is not: how can everyone have equal power? It is rather: how can everyone be powerful? Power is not viewed as a zero-sum game, where the power I have is necessarily power taken away from you. Instead, if we acknowledge that we are all interconnected, the more powerful you are, the more powerful I can become. The more powerfully you advance the organization’s purpose, the more opportunities will open up for me to make contributions of my own.”

Making a stand to show up as powerful requires proactively choosing to be responsible for your destiny. It is that or remain the victim of circumstance beyond you control. And, this can be done without compromising your values. Power does not have to be gregarious, in your face, as the expense of others. This is not about being narcissistic. It can be done humble (rather than submissive) way, with equanimity when the pressure is on and true colour come to the fore.

Laloux continues, “Here we stumble upon a beautiful paradox: people can hold different levels of power, and yet everyone can be powerful. If I’m a machine operator―if my background, education, interests, and talents predispose me for such work―my scope of concern will be more limited than yours, if your roles involve coordinating the design of a whole new factory. And yet, if within what matters to me, I can take all necessary actions using the advice process, I have all the power I need.”

“Many organizations today claim to be empowering. But note the painful irony in that statement. If employees need to be empowered, it is because the system’s very design concentrates power at the top and makes people at the lower rungs essentially powerless, unless leaders are generous enough to share some of their power.”

Laloux refers to self-managing organisations where people are not empowered by the good graces of other people, the leadership. Empowerment is baked into the very fabric of the organization, into its structure, processes, and practices. Individuals need not fight for power. They simply have it. For people experiencing self-management for the first time, the ride can be bittersweet at first. With freedom comes responsibility: you can no longer throw problems, harsh decisions, or difficult calls up the hierarchy and let your bosses take care of it. You can’t take refuge in blame, apathy, or resentfulness. Everybody needs to grow up and take full responsibility for their thoughts and actions―a steep learning curve for some people. With power comes great responsibility, yet with responsibility come great power, too.

As power relates to position, it is often associated with control. However, to gain control one has to relinquish control. Power is also associated with an authoritarian style of management driven by antagonistic, adversarial and coercive thinking patterns. Empowerment comes with a more developmental management style supported by mutually agreed results orientation, people centeredness that affords self-actualisation. This thinking applies to managing and preference as to how one wants to be managed.

in my opinion, it does not take being a self-managed, self organised to be powerful? It is possible to take responsibility and empower yourself in all circumstances. This comes about when you have a thought or a feeling and make a decision to choose between being a victim of those circumstances to take responsibility for your own power – be in action that lines up what puts you into flow, aligns with your values and fulfils your purpose.


Brian Robertson, the founder of Holacracy, put it well in a blog post:

“We see attempts for leaders to develop to be more conscious, aware, awake, servant leaders that are empowering. … And yet, the irony: … If you need someone else to carefully wield their power and hold their space for you, then you are a victim. This is the irony of empowerment, and yet there is very little else we can do within our conventional operating system other than try our best to be conscious, empowering leaders.”

Right in the beginning of his book, Power, Politics and Change, Osho makes the distinction between personal power and power over others. He makes a strong claim that power over others is political, and the people who are interested in power over others are people who feel a deep inferiority complex. Political power and the urge to dominate other arises because you don’t know yourself and you don’t want to know that you don’t know yourself. Lust for political power and the trappings of position, status and attention are an escape from the prospect of sharing power empowering others power of recognition,

“Can man lift himself up by his bootstraps? Why not? All he has to do is increase his buoyancy and he’ll effortlessly rise to a higher state. Force cannot accomplish that feat; power not only can, but constantly does.” David Hawkins in his book Power vs Force makes this distinction between force and power.

The clear distinction in power taken or given in an empowerment context applied in an organisation is a great leadership enquiry for those seeking to empower as opposed to creating the environment for empowerment to happen through employee self-determination.



Content by Frederic Laloux from: Misperceptions of Self-Management – Morning Star Self-Management Institute, June 12, 2014

Content by Doug Kirkpatrick from: Five Crucial Competencies of Self-Management – Morning Star Self-Management Institute, April 17, 2014

Power vs. Force, The Hidden Determinants of Human Behaviour, David R. Hawkins, M.D. Ph.D. ISBN 1-56170-933-6

Power, Politics, and Change, What Can I Do to Help Make the World a Better Place? Oho, ISBN 978-0-312-59546-3

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh: Adopt Holacracy Or Leave.

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