Isn’t it time to bury empowerment for enablement?


This week another article was published promoting empowerment. Jeffrey Hayzlett´s article in Entrepreneur Resolutions Successful Business Leaders Will Keep lists empowerment (“Empower your team to act”) as an essential resolution:

If I had my druthers, I would have everyone around me feel empowered to act, not just often, but all the time! I want people to act like themselves, but bigger.

Surely in 2016 it is time to finally ditch the concept of empowerment for its far more relevant and engaging cousin enablement.

From the mid-Eighties onwards the study and practice of leadership and teaming has been dominated by theories of empowerment. Empowerment, a relatively new word in the English language which has its ideological roots in gender politics, has come to mean a vague blanket term representing anything from self-power and autonomy to positive thinking and enhanced self-image. I favour the term enablement. Why? It is not just semantics: it gets to the heart of what it is to be an effective leader in the digital age.

The term empowerment has power embedded in it and denotes the transfer of executive power and authority to someone to do something (offering that person opportunity and power over their situation). Enablement, on the other hand, meaning ‘to make able’, is to supply the means, knowledge and opportunity to someone to do something. Both terms have opportunity and self-autonomy of the individual as an aspiration but enablement is more to do with the development of the individual which, for me, encapsulates the essence of modern leadership. Any leader can empower others; try it, send an email to your team authorising them in future to take decisions without deferring up the chain of command. Bingo! You have empowered others at the click of a finger; but you haven’t necessarily enabled them to be successful. To enable someone is to activate self-autonomy through sustained development and support.

The mark of an effective modern leader is the leader who creates a supportive environment that promotes the development of others, allowing raw talent and ability to surface which inspires initiative and competitive edge. The leader’s role here is not to empower others for the sake of empowerment (making the person feel better about themselves or creating a better world); it is more than mere transfer of power, it is a strategic view of leadership that builds enabling structures, cultures and habits to support and develop others to become effective, self-autonomous individuals who are full of ideas, innovation and drive that creates competitive edge for the business.

by Ric Kelly PhD