Leading by Empowerment A Leader’s Suggestion

by Jonathan Grantham, Ed.D.
deputy superintendent of Marion County Public Schools and adjunct professor at National Louis University

A topic that has always fascinated me within leadership is power. I know that might sound a bit strange, but I always wanted to know how power was earned and how leaders can use their positions of power to truly make positive change.

I have witnessed people, throughout my 21-year career, misuse their power. I have watched it corrupt people. I have seen power destroy organizational culture. I have observed power destroy personal relationships. However, I have seen people use power beautifully as well.

I have worked for people who truly understood the significance of their position and enabled others to lead and think freely. I have been fortunate enough to closely witness district leaders honor their colleagues and share their power. I have watched superintendents trust in their people and empower others around them. This brief discussion is intended to define power, to identify where power comes from, to discuss the ugly terms of power, to embrace the appropriate ways to use power, and to use power to lead and guide others to positive success.

First, let’s define power. Power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of an event. Power can also be defined as the great or marked ability to do or act. Simply stated, power might be how we as leaders influence or guide other professionals.

I know the word power seems abrasive and maybe a tad bit elitist at first, but that is certainly not the intent. In every avenue of my professional and personal life, I have been given power. French and Raven (1969) identify the bases of power as: legitimate, reward, coercive, referent and expert.

Legitimate power is given when someone is hired, elected or appointed. An example might be a principal or a superintendent. The role grants the person legitimate power. The position is the source of their power.

Reward power happens when the person has the ability to reward others. Quick examples could be a gift such as money or a pat on the back. This power rewards good deeds and recognizes ways to honor others.

Coercive power has the ability to potentially punish. This is a “do what I tell you or else” approach. A few examples might be a professor, teacher or a boss. The boss has the ability to fire and the professor has the power to give a student a failing grade.

Next is referent power. This is the power of likability or respect. In my opinion, this is the power great leaders attain, through time, and use masterfully. An example might be a pastor or your grandfather. If one of them say it, most us believe and do exactly what they told us to do.

Finally, expert power is given to those who have a higher level of knowledge than the majority. A physician or an attorney are easily understandable when listing examples of experts. They know more than us, so we respect their knowledge and pay attention.

Now, let’s talk about the ugly terms we toss around education. Terms like accountable, accountability and delegation are what I call ugly or gross words. Accountable is a term that leaders use incorrectly and proudly in faculty meetings. Principals and assistant principals tout holding their people accountable. Sounds good, but wait…

Accountable means liable, answerable, responsible, explicable or the obligation to report or justify. I am not so certain that explaining yourself or reporting why you made a decision is something that any of us enjoy. Actually, I am sure it is not. That obviously is not a sought after work environment and might even be difficult to deal with daily.

What about delegation? Why do I call that ugly? Well, it sounds like you are being lazy and beneath doing the task. Sometimes principals get in the big chair and delegate everything. They forget what it is like to do bus duty or help with a master schedule. When this happens, delegation does begin to feel yucky and thus invites negative implications.

Is there a time to delegate? If I cannot delegate, what do I do? Is there a more appropriate way to lead? Of course, there is a time to delegate and yes, there is another way to lead. Delegation should happen when you are a leader, but true leaders empower others. Delegation still happens, but it happens less as trust and understanding develop. Delegation is simply giving a task away and checking in to make sure it gets done to your satisfaction, but that is not empowering to others.

To create a culture of leaders within your organization, I would tell you to distribute your leadership. When you distribute your leadership, you are giving your power to someone else. You are allowing another person to complete a task with little to no guidance from you. An example would be an important ceremony, like a high school graduation, where the superintendent follows the directions of the school and has little input. Empowerment makes leaders feel good, especially when they know their boss trust them.

Empowerment and delegation must coexist to lead an exemplary organization. As a leader, you need to know when you can empower others. I have compiled the following list: after you model your expectations, after you are certain people understand your expectations, after you determine the person you are empowering treats others with respect, after you determine they are competent, and after you realize the person you empower has the ability to empower others.

As I conclude this post, let’s encapsulate power with empowerment and distributive leadership. As a leader, I long for the referent power and understand why I have a few other forms of power. My title and knowledge have afforded me a few other forms power whether warranted or not.

I attempt to use reward power every single day to make others around me know how important they are to me and my organization. I understand that I still must delegate at times, but I want to empower others to lead and create the next generation of leaders.

I try to stay away from terms like accountable and accountability. I am okay with allowing others to lead even if they might make a few mistakes along the way. As I conclude, I want to encourage all leaders to hire well and allow the people you to hire to: LEAD!