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Monday, May 2, 2016

The Power of Empowerment

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

The Power of Empowerment

“You develop people not jobs.” Peter Drucker (p. 110)

“Before you can ask someone to do
something, you have to help them be something.”4
William Pollard (p. 111)

Driving toward Empowerment

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” (Dickens, p. 7)
No, Charles Dickens was not describing the push-me pull-me mental tug of war among participants in the present shared decision making struggle. These opening lines of The Tale of Two Cities however, do seem a fitting description of the apparent incongruity within the power vs. empowerment issue for those lacking the insight to this sophisticated symbiotic relationship.

When I think of empowerment I often conjure up an image of a car. Properly utilized, empowerment can be a vehicle supportive of school improvement. However, the reason I use the car as a symbol of empowerment is embodied in the following two questions associated with cars and reinforcing the value of empowerment.

First, Don Petersen, while CEO at Ford, urged design engineers to create the next great concept car by reviewing their plans and offering the challenging question, “Is this the car you want to see in your driveway?” (Waterman, p. 222)

Second, ask yourself this question, “When was the last time you washed a rental car?” (Kouzes and Posner, p. 237) People typically do not wash rental cars because the cars are usually used a short time before returning them to the dealer. Quite simply, we view the rental car as belonging to someone else. It isn’t ours!

As school leaders we have to find ways to help all staff members feel ownership in the school. The moment that staff members view the school in the same manner they see rental cars we lose quality contributions and commitment. Deal and Jenkins propose that “good organizations have learned that people should be empowered to make decisions rather than programmed to follow rules.” (Deal and Jenkins, p. 145)

We must position the staff in a fashion that they work with children with the same pride and vigor that the design engineers create the car for their own driveway. In other words, perform their responsibilities as if their very own children were the recipients of their services. I believe that one of the quickest ways to initiate school improvement is to insist that staff have their children attend the school where they work.

The first and perhaps most important step in empowering others is to make sure that you are not sitting comfortably or complacently in the driver’s seat of the car. Instead, envision your role to be much like that of a driver education teacher. You sit beside a series of individuals, each taking turns developing their driving abilities. Have faith in the fact that you, like the instructor, have a matching set of devices, brakes, steering wheel… that enable you to avert disaster as the other drivers practice the skills that will give them the confidence to navigate the car.

Your responsibility is to nurture the leadership capacity within each staff member. This task resembles the work of a butterfly or bee that pollinates plants.

The entire school benefits by the collective insight and experience of those within it. To echo a frequently used saying, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now, it’s easy to read this, and not difficult to give the idea lip service. However, people will easily detect any dissonance between what you say and what you do. Such a discrepancy will be counterproductive. If you mimic the concept of empowerment because it sounds politically correct or you’ve heard the superintendent drop the word at administrative meetings, then you will be seen as a charlatan and damage valuable credibility and integrity. Put another way, you’ve got to walk the talk.

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