Byron's Babbles

Earned Empowerment is Dangerous

Posted in Coaching, Educational Leadership, Leadership by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on May 21, 2015

empowermentOn Tuesday of this week, at the breakfast session of the American Federation for Children National Education Policy Summit, my new friend Jean-Claude Brizard made a comment during our discussion that really hit me like a ton of bricks. We were talking about building leadership capacity in our teachers and building our leadership benches/pipelines. Jean-Claude said, “Earned empowerment is very dangerous.” I have to say I more than a little taken aback by this statement. As a believer in distributive and shared leadership, I was a believer in the the idea of “earned empowerment.” In fact I have even blogged about it. Click here to read “Walk the Talk” and click here to read “Be Consistent, Not Clever!” Jean-Claude went on to explain what he meant. He believes that if you subscribe to “earned empowerment” that you will only be empowering the top 10% of your team. In other words, those top-performers who “earn” it.

Jean-Claude contends that we need to empower everyone in some way or another. In his words, “we need to empower them whether they want to be or not.” His belief is this empowerment will then develop them as leaders. I must say, after reflecting, this really makes a lot of sense. As a leader who has created a “make it so” environment, why would I not want everyone to be empowered. I guess I really have been practicing empowering everyone, because I want everyone to come to me with well thought through plans and tell me what they intend to do. My goal is to always say, “Make It So!”

This idea of empowering everyone really is interesting. Think about it; if we are able to empower all of our people with projects, responsibilities, and aren’t we really expanding the capacity of our organization. So really, mass empowerment equals capacity building. This in turn means leadership development of our teams. Wow!

There is one catch to this, however, in Turn The Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders by L. David Marquet, he talks about empowerment really being a delegation of authority. Marquet described, however, that delegation alone is not the answer. We must also be committed to increasing the technical knowledge of those on the team. As Marquet said, “When authority is delegated, technical knowledge takes on greater importance at all levels” (Marquet, 2013). He went on to say, “Control without competency is chaos” (Marquet, 2013). I love this quote because it drives home the point that leaders must consistently provide an environment of professional growth that builds the competency of all in our organizations. Therefore, if we are going to empower all of the members of our organization we need to make sure we have trained them and provided them the necessary professional growth opportunities to prepare them for their responsibilities. Pretty exciting stuff!

Another important thing to keep in mind is that there will be differences in abilities of those on our teams. Also, there will be those who do not want to be empowered. There always seem to be a few who just want to be told what to do. This means that we, as leaders, will need to differentiate and individualize how we empower our team members.

This whole idea of the danger of earned empowerment has really got me thinking about those on the team I lead that I have not empowered or need to empower more. Do you have members of your team you need to empower?


Marquet, L. D. (2013). Turn the ship around!: A true story of turning followers into leaders. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

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  1. Into the End Zone | Byron's Babbles said, on February 18, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    […] is empowered, it helps to lesson the chance of crossing the line. I blogged about empowerment here. I believe it is extremely difficult when building and developing future leaders to not get really […]


  2. Spreading The Wealth | Byron's Babbles said, on November 9, 2020 at 12:08 am

    […] Over the weekend a teacher leader asked me how her principal should be deciding which teachers should get development opportunities and be empowered. I said, “That’s easy; all of them should be getting those opportunities.” As I learned from Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, everyone has potential. Everyone should have empowerment and opportunities for development. Really, our teacher leaders should all have individualized development plans. Therefore, everyone should be in development mode and be empowered to lead from where they are. Everyone is a leader, so leadership should happen whenever and from wherever it is needed. We need to be very careful to not fall in the trap of “earned empowerment.” In other words only empowering the chosen ones who someone thinks has earned it. This might yield empowering and developing 10% at best. I blogged about this in Earned Empowerment is Dangerous. […]


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