How great leaders empower employees

Leaders come in many different forms and adopt many different styles. One thing that unites the best leaders, however, is their ability to empower those around them to achieve their objectives. This is often referred to as "leading from behind" – but what exactly does that entail?

What does it mean to lead from behind?

In his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom", Nelson Mandela shared a particularly insightful piece of wisdom on leadership:

"A leader [. . .] is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

This metaphor captures what empowering employees is all about. Empowered employees are not mere followers, who do and say exactly what their leader has instructed them to do. Instead, they are given the opportunity to pursue the organisation's goals in a more self-directed way. When employees need fewer sticks and carrots to do what the organisation needs them to, they begin to feel much more in control of their role, increasing their commitment to the business, their team and their goals.

Woman business leader conducting discussion.What does effective leadership entail?

How can you empower your employees?

In his paper on the art of leadership as empowerment1, Jay Conger explains empowerment as "the act of strengthening an individual's beliefs in his or her sense of effectiveness." Empowered employees, in other words, are those who believe they can get results if they put in the effort. Unempowered employees work in organisations where they feel as though nothing they do matters – good ideas and hard work go unrewarded. To empower your employees, you need them to believe they can make change, that they can achieve their goals and that they'll be rewarded if and when they do so.

Here are four ways you can empower the people in your organisation.

1. Earn their trust by showing you trust them

Conger explains that one of the fundamental aspects of empowerment is for leaders to believe in their employees' abilities, sincerely and wholeheartedly. Leaders who empower trust the people who work for them to do the jobs they've been hired to do. If you've ever been the subject of micro-management, you'll know how easy it is to spot when a leader or manager doesn't feel this way. That's why an empowering leader has to genuinely believe in their employees. Once leaders have shown they do, employees will be more emboldened to take risks, to try new things and to strive to achieve their best, because they will believe that you as the leader trust them to take charge of their role.

2. Create a culture where mistakes are okay

Part of empowering employees to act is ensuring they're not afraid of making mistakes. Even if the bureaucratic barriers to employees trying new things are lowered, they can still be boxed in if the consequences for trying something and failing are too severe. There is a balance to be found here, of course – in some cases, it's too costly or dangerous to fail – but in cases where innovative thinking is desired, you can't ask employees to risk trying new things with the threat of draconian consequences if it doesn't pan out. Make failing a part of the culture – something to always learn from.

3. Make the vision clear

You need to create a clear vision for the organisation if you want your employees to be empowered. In his paper "Leadership as empowering others", Warner Burke2 writes "Empowerment, then, comes from leaders providing clarity of direction, but not just any direction – a direction that encompasses a higher purpose, a worthy cause, an idea, and will require collective and concerted effort." It's not enough to just say "here are our sales targets" or "this is the client we want to impress". Instead, you as a leader need to communicate the higher goal – why these sub-goals are important at all. When you do that, and your employees buy in to it, the motivation for them to achieve those sales targets or impress that client is easily found.

Leadership in the workplaceLeaders should ensure employees know they trust them to take charge of their role.

How to prove you're an empowering leader 

As we've explored, having the leadership skills to empower the people around you is incredibly valuable. It's a skill that can supercharge your organisation's achievements by harnessing your team's intrinsic motivation – a much more effective force than coercion or purely monetary stimulus. Businesses all around the world are clamouring for leaders who can do this, but it's often difficult to find those that really can. After all, a few words on a CV isn't real proof of what you're capable of.

This problem is what Deakin's Professional Practice credentials were created to solve. They offer a inexpensive and quick way to accredit your skills – for example, your ability to empower others with your leadership. With the backing of a world-class university, our credentials are the best way to prove your leadership skills.

To learn more about our Professional Practice credentials, and how they can take your career to the next level, get in touch with a member of the team today.

Conger, Jay A. (1989). The Art of Empowering Others. The Academy of Management Executive (1987-1989). 3, 1.

Burke, Warner W. (1986). Leadership as empowering others. Executive Power.