How to Lead with Empowerment Instead of Fear

“Leadership is a responsibility. It’s not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge.” – Simon Sinek

Most of us have experienced authoritative bosses who approach leadership with sticks, carrots, and the odd directive. In their defense, corporate systems teach those in authority how it should be. I prefer to lead with a supportive platform of values and expectations. To achieve sustainable growth, we must trade cultures of fear for ones built on trust and empowerment.

I was fortunate enough to step away from the corporate machine and build my own business nearly 15 years ago. Like most entrepreneurs, I learned a lot of lessons the hard way. But I also discovered several early winning strategies that have defined Haystack’s progress through the years. Chief among them: a focus on hiring high-quality talent and building the business around brilliant people.

Next, I learned that to create a lasting positive culture, there needs to be full buy-in of core values from those in leadership positions. It’s easier to grow that engagement from day one than to backfill or change it once the wheels are turning.

So, how can you create a company culture of empowerment while building your business?

  1. Surround yourself with experts. For me, this initially happened organically and intuitively; I knew I didn’t have all the answers and was perpetually looking, listening, and learning. I needed a team that could strategically contribute to our growth. This strategy has become a secret of our success. Hire high-quality talent and support their work with resources and encouragement, not micromanagement. Demonstrate trust, and it will be exponentially reciprocated.

  2. Build work around that expertise. This may sound counter-intuitive, but I’ve had great results hiring talent first and building work around that talent instead of looking for the perfect person for a predefined role. Sometimes this means creating new positions. More often than not, it means tweaking an existing role to fit an individual’s skill set and interests.

The Golden Rule = Golden Results

Most of us don’t enjoy being told what to do. Especially once you’ve worked hard to hone a skill set and position yourself as an expert in your field – something I believe we should all be working towards. Understanding that talent is your company’s greatest asset (and treating your people accordingly) creates a foundation of trust and a culture of empowered, responsible individuals. 

In other words, when talent understands you trust them to do their work independently and that you have custom fit their roles to suit, the result is mutual respect, empowerment, agency, and ownership of results. As an added benefit, this model fosters fun, work-life satisfaction, and business growth that can be shared and celebrated by all.

Success is Built on Strategic Risk Taking

As if that weren’t enough, another invaluable, though seemingly counterintuitive advantage of empowering talent is growth through creative problem-solving. When those in your network feel trusted and supported, they become willing to take risks with their work because they’re unafraid to make mistakes. 

Creativity needs space to thrive, and mistakes are both invaluable learning experiences and growth opportunities. They are also unavoidable aspects of the human condition. To be is to err, to err is to learn, and to learn is to improve. So let’s normalize mistakes and encourage strategic risk-taking with a focus on maximizing the growth potential of each misstep. 

In the same way, I learned hard lessons and hired experts to fill strategic gaps in my business-building, your talent will learn from and support one another as entrepreneurs of their own workloads when given the freedom to do so.

Create a process for ownership and open discussion of initiatives that fell short of their intended goals, so that talent can analyze and learn from their mistakes and those of others. Managing from this perspective of empowerment, support, and education is a shortcut to the greatest gain. Foster the personal growth of your people, and you’ll harness company growth as a result.  

When in Doubt, Talk it Out

Finally, I encourage you to adopt a concept my executive assistant brought to my attention a few years back. I was struggling with an interpersonal situation at work and unsure how to handle a challenging conversation; I was uncertain if I should even have it. My EA was reading Dare to Lead by Dr. Brene Brown and brought forth her concept of “clear is kind, and unclear is unkind,” which has become a guiding principle for my management style. 

The concept is that the kindest thing we can do for our colleagues and business (or any relationship for that matter) is to have the hard conversations as clearly as possible, even though in the moment, it can feel like the opposite. Addressing challenges head-on, while uncomfortable in the short term, saves everyone discomfort and confusion in the long run. Our people shouldn’t have to wonder where they stand. 

The Bottom Line

By being courageous enough to speak openly about challenges as well as successes, we earn respect and deepen our relationships. 

By surrounding ourselves with experts and defining work accordingly, we foster growth and create an environment of trust. 

And by allowing talent the opportunity to work through and learn from their mistakes without fear, we create cultures of empowerment. 

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