I want to talk about power.
No, not the dark side of power nor all the abuses that flow from it—a good topic for another day—but the practice of giving away power.
This conversation actually started six months ago over tacos at a local hole-in-the-wall with a local pastor. First, a little context.
Last year, I let go of the formal leadership position I held for more than sixteen years. After what felt like a healthy public and private transition process, I handed the reins to my successor and started my next transition into the uncharted wilderness of the semi-retired. (By the way, I’m not sure what semi-retired actually means. I’m also doubtful if the traditional concept of retirement will ever be my cup of tea.)
My friend asked me to lunch in order to pick my brain about my succession process. He was curious what I’d learned, what went well, what didn't, how I was feeling, etc. At one point, between bites of taco, he asked an unexpected question. “Was it hard to give away your power?”
I paused. It didn’t feel hard. It felt good and right. But, was I missing something? Was I in touch with my emotions on this? Then a light snapped on and I heard myself say these words.
“No. It actually wasn’t hard. It doesn’t seem hard to give away your power and authority if you’ve made it your normal way of leading all along.
One of the things healthy leaders do is look for opportunities to give power and authority to the leaders around them on a regular basis. To leverage their power to empower others.”
I’d never put words to this principle or practice before that lunch. And, I certainly don’t claim any credit for always doing a great job at it either. But, I think the big hand-off of my position felt right and good because it was merely another step in a way of living and leading I tried to follow.
When it comes time for leadership succession, we see the need for surrendering power and authority to the incoming leader. However, I am suggesting that one of the most significant practices of ongoing leadership is continually giving away power to others.
Jesus said it this way, “If you want to become great, become the servant of all.” (Matt. 20.26)
You heard it in one of the most moving scenes from the epic, Braveheart. William Wallace confronts the Nobles saying, “There's a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it.”
Don’t lose me by thinking you don’t have any power to start with. If you have influence of any kind in any relationship or organization, you hold some degree of power. You balance some version of formal and informal opportunity to empower others. You might think of it as authority or responsibility—that’s healthy. I know the word “power” carries undesirable baggage, so if it helps you, just think about your authority.
Think about the contribution you could make to developing leaders around you by handing them responsibility and authority in regular doses. Consider the added horsepower that could be released in your organization if more people had authority to make decisions, execute responsibility, solve problems, etc. Or, imagine the impact of working as a team or organization that shares power and authority with leaders of color, those across the gender divide, emerging leaders, or with leaders who are aging out.
Giving away power makes all of us and all we do better.
Where to Begin:
Let’s get out of the clouds and down to earth. Giving away power is not a matter of grandiose intentions, but concrete, tangible, action. Here are four ways you can start:
Share Your Platform(s) If you are a leader, you have opportunities to address others, to lead meetings, to communicate in writing, to present ideas, etc. Those platforms of influence are a perfect place to elevate someone else’s voice or giftedness.
Hand-off Projects or Responsibilities Think about those projects or responsibilities that live on your plate. Why not hand a few of them off to others? Maybe you could work as equal partners. Maybe you put them in first chair and you take on a quiet supportive role.
Sponsor Others into New Opportunities When new opportunities are spotted on the horizon, hand someone else the primary responsibility to pursue them. Give them authority and resources to chase them down. And, give them the freedom to stumble without fear of retribution.
Stay Off Stage—but not Out of Touch When you hand over power and authority for something, don’t hover nearby in order to steal partial credit. Step off stage. Put them in the limelight. But, stay close by so you can serve them in unseen ways when extra support is needed. Giving away power requires engagement. It does not mean laissez-faire leadership.
It’s the beginning of a New Year. A year we desperately hope will see the end of the Covid chaos. We ache for a new normal.
In spite of what happens with Covid, you could create a new normal for people by developing the habit of giving away power and responsibility. It could be good for them, great for your organization, and life-giving for you.
What steps could you take this week?