Sunday, May 23, 2010

Great Leaders Empower Their Staff

Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying that “as a leader, I have always endeavoured to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Often, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.”

In a brilliant article in this months Harvard Business Review Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown remind us that “some bosses stifle their employees and some make them shine”. They mention that, unfortunately, “some leaders drain all the intelligence and capability out of their teams” (p.117). These are the type of ‘leaders’ who have to be right; always have the last word and never encourage ideas because they feel threatened by others. These are people who have been promoted into leadership positions, without understanding the basics of leadership – which is about developing others and not stifling them for ones own benefit.

Strong and effective leaders know when to be humble, recognise the individual strengths of each and every member of their teams and most of all encourage everyone to contribute their ideas, accepting that every individual has value to add to the organisation, (which is why they were recruited in the first place).

Amar, Hentrich and Hlupic (2009) found in their research that, “companies reliant on knowledge and innovation should abandon the traditional structure in which decision rights are reserved for people at the top. Furthermore, they found that contrary to what many CEO’s assume, leadership is not really about delegating tasks and monitoring results; it is about instilling the entire workforce with a sense of responsibility for the business”, (p.23). This means that the organisation is always more important than the individual – where creating sustainable growth for the organisation will create growth for their employees.

Leadership as a concept is often made more complicated than necessary – great leaders empower their employees to ‘be creative’ and to ‘challenge’ the status quo of the organisation – this leads to a highly motivated workforce, which is focused on innovation and continuous improvement. Poor leaders hide behind their power to stifle ideas, fearful that creative energy will only highlight their own weaknesses.

Wiseman and McKeown define effective leaders in their research as ‘multipliers’ and found that multipliers manage and influence five main areas of organisational development – “talent, culture, strategy, decision making and execution”, (p.118). They conclude their article by stating that “when you invite people’s best thinking and lead like a multiplier, your team will give you more – more discretionary effort, more mental and physical energy, and more fresh ideas critical for long-term success”, (p.121).


Amar, A.D., Hentrich, C. and Hlupic, V. (2009). To Be a Better Leader, Give Up Authority. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 12, p.22-24. [online], last update unknown. Available:

Wiseman, L. and McKeown, G. (2010). Bringing Out the Best in Your People. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 88, Issue 5, p.117-121.

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