Leadership is a lost art in our times anyway. There is talk everywhere about leadership empowering people. I’ve seen leaders who empower people but not many in large organizations, that’s for sure. As a Marine sniper in Vietnam I saw leaders empower us young kids who knew nothing. One leader, Colonel Masterpool, had people that would follow him to hell and back just because of who he was and how he treated and communicated with us.
When I worked for Frito Lay back in the late seventies and into and through the eighties they came along one time, around eighty-seven, maybe eighty-eight and decided they would ‘empower’ our mechanics that worked in the shops of our extensive private truck fleet. They wanted to elevate them, they said, to positions of more responsibility.
Headquarters Human Resources were in charge of this charade and it became a program that was rolled out across the country. When it hit the streets it amounted to nothing more than a headcount reduction, we eliminated the vast majority of our Fleet Managers as they were called, the folks who ran the shops that maintained the vehicles of our private fleet. It was called empowerment.
When it hit the street it reminded me of the old quote from Alfred E. Newman, the one from Mad Magazine when he said, “Just because everything’s different doesn’t mean that anything’s changed”. And nothing had changed except we were short several Fleet Managers.
The mechanics clearly understood day one that they would now do the work of their former boss. They would now do all the paperwork, the parts ordering, the warranty claims, you name it. Of course the company rolled out systems to support this new work, right? No way. Come on you say, the company paid them, the mechanics, a little more money for the new work, right? Not on your life. They should be happy with their new responsibilities. One HR Manager actually said, “They should be happy we trust them with this work”.
That all happened in the late eighties when ‘empowerment’ was all the rage. It was the flavor of the month and roared through Frito like a wild tsunami. And since that time it has gotten worse. Today it is part of the normal vocabulary of leaders. Just ran in to it the other day in a session I did with a multi-national company. Meeting with the leaders ahead of time, VP level dudes (yes, it’s still mostly dudes), the leaders in conversation went on about their people being ‘empowered’ and when I did my workshop with their people intentionally didn’t mention it and see if it came up … and it did, loud and clear.
People are surprised when I tell them in my thirty plus year management and leadership career I was most empowered as a United States Marine. That’s right, the Marine Corp, known for its discipline and my way or the highway attitude was most empowering. Let me tell you the secret, why the Corp was so empowering.
In the Marine Corp you are taught one single thing heading in to a mission … commanders intent. In a nutshell, commanders’ intent is the end game of the mission. Gentlemen, you are to take that hill at coordinates 567123 by 0100 tomorrow morning. Now you make detailed plans and everyone has a particular role, not like the matrix management BS where leaders won’t make the hard calls. The plans are elaborate and when the first shot is fired most of the plans go out the window, just like in your business. But if everyone knows ‘commanders intent’ it’s no problem, carry on and take the hill at 567123 by 0100 tomorrow.
That is empowerment. In each of our roles we were empowered to work together and deliver the objective. Did the plans change? Yes. Did we ad lib and do what we had to for the delivery of the objective, yes. Did we work together without arguing? No, but we delivered the commanders intent because we all knew what it was and that delivering it and working together as a unit was, shall we say, a condition of employment.
Empowerment is a powerful feeling. It means you truly give me the power to deliver on my job. And understand it is a byproduct of solid leadership, not a program. How many leaders today do that? Darn few. Think about it. With the introduction of pagers and cell phones everyone wants a call. Twenty years ago when you left the office you had to leave people in charge because you couldn’t communicate with them. And they grew in the process. Today people are so vainly important they have to be talking walking along in the airport. Give me a break.
Lead like you trust your troops. Lead by giving them solid direction in the beginning and they get out of the way … that is empowerment and leadership.
Ed Kugler has been living change since the jungles of Vietnam where he was a Marine Sniper for two-years in the Vietnam War. He came home to a country he hadn't left and began work as a mechanic and truck driver. Since then he has worked his way into the executive suite of Frito Lay, Pepsi Cola and Compaq Computer where he was Vice President of Worldwide Logistics, a position he achieved with no college degree. Ed left in 1997 to consult and write. He is the author of Dead Center - A Marine Sniper's Two Year Odyssey in the Vietnam War and five other books and counting. He regularly consults with some o the nations leading companies on organizational change and coaches individuals to make the most of their lives. Ed is the father of three, grandfather to three and has been married to the same woman for 38 years and counting. http://www.nomorebs.com http://www.edkugler.com