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  • Anubhav Berry

The disempowered leader

Updated: Mar 20, 2018


Bet you've seen this image, or a version of it, before. The text has been modified to support the flow of this post but it's on similar lines to the original. It's a classic depiction of corporate hierarchy; there's always exceptions though.


There's a lot of talk about servant leadership. There's a plethora of articles and research done on this topic. There's also a healthy dose of empowerment in most articles and IMHO it's one of the most important building blocks to becoming a truly great servant leader.



Everyone wants a servant leader, irrespective of whether they themselves are a servant leader or not - that's if you're managing people. If a leader doesn't exhibit the qualities of a servant leader they're usually labelled as an a******. One of the key tenets to being a servant leader is empowering your people and then getting out of the way. To do that a leader must also be empowered. But are leaders, specially those in an enterprise, really empowered. To understand this we need to take a look who a leader actually works for and what is the expectation off them.



Who should a leader work for and what is expected off them


Google is obsessed with numbers. So they decided to find out why their teams click. Their HR department did a research to that effect. Read more about that here.


The number 1 factor of why their teams click is psychological safety, which is what their leaders provide them. After all a leader has to work for someone. If you think this someone is their boss then you're wrong. The answer to that questions lies in the title of the infographic - the team. If the team doesn't exist then there's no reason for a leader to exist.


Now that we've established who the leader should work, for let's see what they're expected to provide. Just want to focus on the following:


Psychological safety: team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

Let's do a deep dive into what this means. Imagine you're working as a developer in the mobile app team at a bank and you deployed a version of the iOS app that displays the wrong customer account balance, even if it was done unintentionally and after having passed multiple rounds of testing.


What do you think would happen:

  • you will be asked to explain the kerfuffle and fix it asap and that's it

  • you will be reprimanded in front of the entire team, and possibly other teams

  • you will be stripped of your privileges to deploy any further changes

  • you will be given a poor performance rating at the end of the year

  • you will be named and shamed via an email to the department or company

  • you will be fired

Obviously, you would prefer the first happen to you, but if there's a chance that the last were to eventuate there's no way in hell you would ever take that risk - even if you think it's the right thing to do and even if it means you indefinitely delay the release of the app. Both - not great outcomes and the organisation loses.


Do you want to take a guess at what happens at Google - they applaud risk takers and ask everyone to learn from that mistake. Wow!!! Just wow!!! No wonder there's nothing stopping them. This is how they continuously improve. Can you now relate to why the release process in your organisation is slow and cumbersome (will soon write an article on this).


So, what is the expectation off the leader:

  • risk: the ability to allow your team to fail

  • safety: the ability to provide cover if they fail

A "servant" leader almost always guarantees these 2; obviously within reason. But how many servant leaders are in turn empowered to provide this to their teams. Not too many, specially in a large corporate. Who's to blame - the hierarchy... partly but there's more to it than meets the eye. We need to step outside the boundaries of the organisation to analyse this.



Who do leaders actually work for and what is expected off them

To make sense of what we're talking about the image has had to be slightly modified. Added another layer to represent where the boss of an organisation really sits... yep, right at the bottom. Also, this hierarchy is not exactly a hierarchy in the real sense. For e.g. shareholders to not report to bureaucrats and board of directors report results to shareholders. This hierarchy depicts the "money - power" nexus. There's a lot of lies and mystery in this hierarchy and I'm not qualified enough to educate people on it. But you get the gist of it...


So your leader (boss) is not really the leader you thought. The poor bird actually looks quite powerless and at the receiving end. Do you feel a surge on the empathy-meter and feel that the pay-check is indeed justified. If yes, then you're not alone. The leader is actually quite a powerless person. Yep pretty sad huh!!! But why?


It's all about money and power and to satiate the hunger for them the organisational hierarchies have gotten distorted. Leaders are forced to manage upwards whereas they should really be focusing downwards whilst managing upward expectations. If they don't they will get shit - and a lot of it.

How can we expect a person to be a servant leader under such circumstances. It's only natural that they behave as managers and not leaders. Their destinies are not controlled by them and the worst case scenario is quite severe. In short they're not empowered enough.


What can an organisation do to empower leaders


This is a multi-gazillion dollar question and anyone who find an answer to this might just kick off a new mechanism of how corporates and governments operate, e.g. capitalism, communism, etc... For now it's the money and power nexus. Though we won't be able to solve this conundrum in this article but let's delve further anyway to see where we get to.


Have you heard of the circle of influence, which often is represented as a set of onion rings (the onion model). The above images (with birds) at their core actually depict circles of influence at various levels. One can only create an impact to the extent of the influence they have. To explain this further we'll have to go back to a statement written earlier in this article:


One of the key tenets to being a servant leader is empowering your people and then getting out of the way.

Getting out of the way doesn't mean quitting your job. It literally means peeling away the onion and increasing influence in order to benefit everyone. And, no influence doesn't mean I'll have my cake and eat it too without sharing with anyone else. Some of the

  • flatten the hierarchy as much as possible - the more the hierarchy the more the empowerment dilutes by the time it reaches the bottom. It's like a empowerment Chinese whisper....

  • give "some" flex to their leaders in what they can play with, within bounds ofcourse

  • applaud and reward genuine risk takers and show everyone else what they achieved



What can a leader do to remain empowered


Apart from the usual stuff that a good leader does (as depicted in the image below) there are number of other things that a leader can do in order to remain empowered.


  • increase area influence for both "their leader" and "their team" - effectively paving the way to flatten the hierarchy

  • reduce dependency on grandiose meetings, townhalls, etc... Make it a point that their leaders are aware of the team's way of working and invite them to be part of that cadence - hear it from the horses mouth. A few Japanese businesses do this via a Gemba walk.

  • reduce time bound static reporting expectations. Instead send people above and below the hierarchy a link to a team dashboard that displays production, sales, marketing, operational, IT, people and customer statistics. Create one source of truth.

  • create ubiquity - get as many people above and below in the hierarchy to talk the same language.

  • be more transparent and collaborative - not just by sharing a weekly update from their leaders. For a change try a collaborative approach. For e.g. get people at the lowest level in the hierarchy to contribute to things like vision, etc...

  • take decisions as a collective taking as many people into confidence and share those decisions with as many people as possible

  • be humble and modest

  • be approachable

  • don't be afraid to call out your own failures


So, before we say that my manager is not a leader or rather is an a******, take a look at the poor soul with some empathy. Cut them some slack. Sometime they deserve it too. If they still don't change then by all means continue with the verbal assault.


Are you a disempowered leader? Is yes, would love to hear your views and incorporate your feedback.


Happy days and happy learning and sharing :)


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