In the following nine blog posts, we will attempt to articulate “nine elements of a leadership reproduction culture.” For more explanation, see our first post here. Feedback and questions are more than welcome!
By Tom Virtue
Early on in ministry when I was a student, I was asked by my leaders to take on one of the biggest areas of responsibility and influence on campus. It completely took me by surprise, but it ended up being a turning point in my life! It helped me feel like I belonged and from then on I felt a huge sense of ownership for the mission, and more than that, I felt trusted. I felt empowered.
At that point I began to see myself as a leader, and I also began to act like it!
It was an empowering time for me, but empowerment isn’t just about asking people to do something. And despite much confusion today, empowerment is NOT delegation. It’s not the simple transferring of responsibilities to others, even if we heap on praise and compliments to convey how much we trust and believe in them. Conveying praise while delegating tasks, without a context of relationship, can even come across as pragmatic flattery – trying to be positive and say what needs to be said to get somebody to do what you want them to do. That’s not empowering and can actually achieve quite the opposite effect – people feeling used. This is in large part due to the fact that…
Empowerment does not take place outside of relationship!
Empowerment is also not just a matter of giving others a chance to prove themselves or “step up” to the occasion, even though sometimes an opportunity is all some people need. Being an empowering leader of others is never only about the task at hand – it’s always about the person, and helping them to succeed and grow as a leader. To develop leaders, we must do more than delegate and “just get out of the way.”
Empowerment means that there is a shared responsibility in dialoguing about what is needed to help a person succeed. In most cases, it’s not enough to have an open door policy, where we put the burden on others to just “let us know” if they need help. Yes, when we’re entrusted with responsibility, we need to communicate what we need help in, and take ownership of a situation ourselves. But when we are the ones empowering others, we must also be willing to go out of our way to discover what will set up people to succeed.
We must always be asking the question: “What is going to help this person (or these people) succeed in what we are asking them to do?”
Empowerment is not passive! It’s active, intentional, and relational. It’s about creating an environment so that leaders can thrive. It’s about making space for people to step into the authority and personal maturity to meet the demands of their reality, and to live out their God-given identity in the context of mission. This requires great thought and understanding of each person and context.
That’s what my leaders many years ago did for me. They had to give up two things: power and time. In giving me authority and influence, they had to wrestle with the loss of them personally of influencing the next group of students. In their intentionality to help me succeed as a leader, it took a great investment of time that involved personal sacrifice for them. For many leaders, there’s nothing more valuable than our own time – which is part of why empowerment is such a challenge for us!
But empowerment does not just yield loss and sacrifice. It produces incredible gains and often for a lifetime! If somebody had told me years ago, that I would spend the next few decades of my life working with college students, I would have fallen over in shock, because I didn’t necessarily fit any “normal” slot in the organization at the time. But that’s another key: if we treat empowerment as simply filling organizational slots, more than likely people will feel clueless about what they’re getting into, or resentful that they feel manipulated to take on a delegated responsibility. Imagine the connections to low morale and turnover, and their impact on fruitfulness in the mission!
On the other hand, if we have the heart to give away power as servant leaders, we will experience the joy of seeing people’s increased dignity and influence, even as they live out who they are and encourage others to do the same. If we have the integrity to help others succeed, we will see them emerge into increasing expressions of fruitfulness, as a generation of leaders who will make an enduring impact for God’s kingdom.
- Think of a significant empowering relationship you’ve had. How was this person (these people) active and intentional in your life?
- Have you experienced someone seeking to empower you, but without the relational component? What can you learn from this experience that you don’t want to reproduce?
- What might be 1-2 situations where it would be better for you, for the mission, and for someone you’re working with, if you empowered them to lead something? What might you be holding onto, or reluctant to sacrifice: power, influence, or time? What might be holding you back from empowering others?