Abdication of Leadership at the Altar of Empowerment

Balaji’s Food For Thought - Aug 30, 2017

Balaji Krishnamurthy
Leadership & Culture

At a recent meeting, I was asked by a senior executive how one would know if an employee is ready to be empowered.

I was tempted to respond, tongue in cheek: “When they gain exactly 14 months of tenure, and not a day before.”

Of course, there is no specific point in time when somebody is ready to be empowered. And the answer depends on what they are being empowered to do.

The question that should have been asked is, when is the CEO ready to empower others?

Better yet, what kinds of decisions should you delegate to others, and which should remain yours and yours alone?

In the name of empowerment, leaders sometimes delegate tasks that are fundamental to their leadership responsibilities.

This is tantamount to an abdication of leadership and it ends in failure.  For example, consider the following conversation:

“I like the vision for my company to come from our employees,” a CEO says proudly.  

“How empowering,” a supporting-executive comments.

What odds would you place on this company having a clearly defined vision? How likely is it that the employees could all agree on one vision? And how likely is that vision to be one the CEO agrees with? Is the CEO likely to accept whatever the employees come up with? Or, are the employees simply going to find out what the CEO is thinking and endorse his idea? If that’s the case, is this truly empowerment? Or is this abdication of leadership?

Let’s examine what empowerment is.

In a previous Food for Thought, we define empowerment as enabling others to make decisions and take actions, even if what they would do is counter to your own intuition. In other words, if the only times you’re willing to empower others are when the empowered would do exactly what you would have done, it is not empowerment.

The true test of empowerment is when you are okay with the empowered taking a path you would not have taken, or taking a path you consider ill advised.

A truly empowered organization is one that can enumerate many situations where people have pursued a path, knowing full well that it was counter to their superior’s intuition.

Should the CEO empower others to drive the vision of the company? Absolutely not. The CEO is not likely to — in fact, they should not — accept a conclusion that does not totally align with their own thinking.

So I ask: why pretend that it is empowerment? Why pretend that you are letting others decide? That, in my opinion, is abdication of leadership. Likewise, the company’s culture, its brand promise, its business strategy, are all major decisions that the CEO should clearly declare are under his or her purview. Remember, being the decision maker does not mean that you cannot be open to input from others. Others get to provide input and, possibly, influence you. However, you still remain the decision maker.

Some leaders have difficulty declaring themselves the decision maker on certain major issues because they do not clearly declare others to be the decision maker on other, less important issues.

Read my Food For Thought, “Consensus: A Road to Mediocrity” for more on this subject. However, by clearly and loudly proclaiming their decision-maker status on major issues, as well as demanding such clarity from others, the CEO sets the example from the top-down. It sends a message that decisions are intentional, not arbitrary. In turn, this clarity regarding who owns major company decisions actually reinforces employees’ confidence in their leadership.

Have the courage to declare yourself the person in charge for those major decisions. But also have the courage to let go of the smaller and more minor items.

If you’re unsure of where to draw the line between decisions you can delegate and those you alone can make, remember the empowerment test. Ask yourself, “is this a decision that should be guided by my intuition as CEO, or will the world still turn if another employee makes a choice that I feel is ill-advised?”

The clarity of this thinking will focus your attention, reinforce your leadership and empower your organization.


Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.