Last week I was engaging in a phone conversation with a very experienced colleague, a senior lawyer with whom I have worked for decades. Yes – some people still use their phones for talking!

During the course of our discussion I compared certain leadership tendencies to parallel parenting behaviors, instances when parents engage in enabling actions that allow their kids to continue unproductive habits vs. empowering behaviors that motivate their children to mature and grow.

My colleague was intrigued. He had not been familiar with the contrast between enabling and empowering behaviors, even though he and his wife had successfully raised three wonderful children. So he did what any good lawyer would do – he performed research! He went to the dictionary and the internet.

He discovered that these two words, “enable” and “empower,” are often used interchangeably. Yet, as many leaders know, they mean two very different things and lead to very different results.

As he learned, to enable means to continue being part of the problem that we are desperately trying to solve. Most leaders want to resolve problems as quickly as possible, but sometimes they allow their own insecurities or desire to avoid conflict to perpetuate troubling behavior patterns in their workplace.

To empower, he discovered, is to introduce a solution towards the problem and strive to address it.

Enabling, my friend found, often leaves the giver and the receiver in a more helpless state than they were before. Empowering, on the other hand, usually leaves both parties in a stronger place.

As I could testify based upon my early leadership experience, enabling is more self-centered. When I was a young leader, I engaged in enabling behavior because it allowed me to remain in my comfort zone. I did not have to ruffle any feathers. I did not need to confront any challenging colleagues. I could sweep problems under the rug and pretend they were not happening. Things in the office ran smoothly, I thought, but problems persisted. More importantly, nobody was growing, including me!

Leaders who enable a colleague sometimes do it for their own gain or to feel like they are in control. On the other hand, leaders who empower others think beyond themselves and exhibit a willingness to let go of control.

Empowering behavior can sometimes be more difficult because it may require intentional detachment. To empower someone – your young child or your professional colleague – means to allow them to help themselves and, depending on the situation, this can be extremely scary. It can be particularly scary for a parent who has been enabling a young or adult child to suddenly convert their approach from an enabling to an empowering approach.

The same process can play out in the office. A leader who has traditionally engaged in enabling behavior with her direct reports will have assisted in making such behavior part of the office or department culture. When that leader commits to abandoning the enabling behavior for new empowering behaviors, the team can experience culture shock.

Many people will not know how to react and will continue to try to test the leader in order to make sure the leadership behavior change is real. If you are that leader who is striving to evolve from enabling to empowering behaviors,
-Be transparent about your paradigm change.
-Take responsibility for your past enabling behaviors.
-Talk about your desire for change.
-Be transparent about your intentions.

Empowering behavior will help you move forward faster and further on your leadership journey. I know. I experienced that metamorphosis myself many decades ago.

If you would like to chat about this important leadership process, send me an email. I am glad to discuss it with you!

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