I’m often asked, “As a leader, what’s the key to empowering your team?” My answer: “Learn to listen and let go.” The next question usually is, “What do you mean by that?” I’m glad you asked.
Every leader I know wants to be inspiring and empowering. They want their people to be emotionally invested in their team’s mission (inspired), and they want them to feel a sense of ownership for mission success (empowered).
But most leaders have a much harder time empowering their team members than inspiring them. Which begs the question, “Why is empowering others so difficult?”
I’ve found that it boils down to trust. While inspiring your team members requires them to trust you and your mission, empowering your people requires you to trust them to help you figure out how to accomplish the mission. In other words, being an inspiring and empowering leader requires a two-way street of trust.
Unfortunately, most of us are more comfortable driving on the “one-way” leadership trust street. We want our people to trust our vision of the destination we’re striving for, but we don’t necessarily want to give up “control” of how the team should get there. I’ve learned the hard way that this creates an environment of micromanagement resulting in lower morale, higher risk, and a sub-optimized path to mission success because it stifles initiative and creativity.
So how can you become a more empowering leader, where you create a sense of ownership and accountability for mission success among your team members? Learn to listen to your people, and then let go of the wheel.
Learn to listen
The biggest leadership step change I experienced in my military career occurred when I was transitioning from the role of squadron operations officer to aircraft maintenance officer. Overnight, I went from being in charge of a team of 10 to a team of 120. Not only was this a ten-fold increase in leadership responsibility, but it was also a role in which I had very little background or experience. One thing I did know, however, was that it was important to ensure a sense of ownership and accountability in our aircraft maintenance department. But I wasn’t sure how to achieve this, so I reached out to a mentor.
“How do you generate a sense of ownership on your team?” I asked.
“Ask questions,” he responded.
“But then everyone will think I don’t know the answers,” I rebutted.
“Exactly,” he replied.
Honestly, I wasn’t convinced. Up until this point, I had a tendency to speak first and then ask questions. Perhaps I felt like I needed to somehow demonstrate credibility to compensate for my lack of experience. But in this case, I had no choice. So I learned to ask three basic questions and listen to the answers.
When faced with a problem, first I admitted I didn’t have the answer and I asked for help. Second, I asked how they would solve it. Third, I asked what they thought the biggest risks were.
Little did I know at the time that my mentor’s advice was some of the best I’ve ever received.
When we’re vulnerable enough to ask for help, our people feel important. When we ask how they would solve the problem, they feel like their opinions are valuable (and many times come up with a better solution than we could have on our own). And people closest to the problem have the best instincts regarding what could go wrong. So when we ask them about potential risks, it shows we have confidence in their perspectives.
Bottom line, asking questions and listening to your people is the first step to effectively empowering your team. The second step is to let go and enable your team members to execute the solutions they help create.
Learn to let go
As a former FA-18 flight instructor, I’ve trained hundreds of aviators. When I flew with a new student in the front seat, I had a stick in the back seat for a reason. Primarily, it was there so I could demonstrate how to perform certain maneuvers. And although I rarely needed to take control of the stick when the student was flying, it was there if I needed to.
But I never kept my hand on the stick for an entire flight. The student wouldn’t learn and gain confidence that way. Unfortunately, many leaders “delegate” to their people but never take their hand off the stick, and their team members are never really empowered to execute.
I’ve learned that the most effective way to develop mutual trust as a leader and empower your team is to focus on what you need to do to accomplish your mission and why it’s important, and let go of the how. Trust your people to figure out the best way to accomplish your mission. There’s a good chance the solution they develop will be better than anything you could have come up with on your own, and in the process, you’ll create a valuable sense of ownership among your team members.
To become a more empowering leader, ask questions and listen. Then let go of the wheel and trust your people to help you figure out how to reach your destination. You’ll get there faster with less bumps in the road, and your entire team will be rewarded by the journey.
To dive deeper on the subject of how to empower your team, check out chapter 5 in my book, The Substance of Leadership: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team, available on Amazon. In the meantime, if you want to know if you’re a high-performing leader, take the Performance Pressure Test to find out.