Webster defines empower as “to give official or legal authority to; to endow with an ability; to enable”. But I wonder, does power always have to be bestowed from the ‘outside’?
In this article, I’d like to explore more subtle aspects of empowerment as it relates to change within a larger system. We will explore power not as emanating from a position or role, nor as the teaching of an ability or skill, but as a quality of presence of mind and heart critical to the practice of contemplative leadership and organizational transformation. To frame this discussion, I will borrow three basic areas of empowerment first identified by Robert Keck, Ph.D. In this first of a 3-part series, we will explore what Keck called “Pro-active Empowerment”.
Pro-active Empowerment is ultimately about taking responsibility for our own lives and moving beyond the projection of power (or problem) as residing outside of ourselves.
We are all pretty good about identifying the source of “problems” as something that exists outside of ourselves. Just stop and listen to yourself and others for a day and hear a multitude of complaints and reasons for various problems. “If so and so would only change…”; “If this would only happen, then…”. The difficulty with this very typical kind of thinking and interacting, is that it perpetuates the idea that power for change lies outside of ourselves and rests with others, while leaving us in a position of waiting for something to happen, or possibly using our energy to force something to happen. In reality, we rarely can force change. (In the short term, we may be able to get compliance from people, but that will only last so long and people eventually find some way to sabotage the results). We can waste a lot of energy trying to “solve” problems with the same mentality that created them in the first place.
Classical science reinforced a sense of powerlessness or the need for control by focusing on fragmented parts as the “cause” of something. The “enemy” is out there. Cause and effort were thought of as being close in time and space. Many of the processes in traditional hierarchical institutions are built on this type of unexamined thinking.
Newer understandings of science provide a vision of a universe that is an inter-dependent system. Everything is connected to everything else. Often no one decision or person is responsible for a problem, but rather it is the compilation of years of small decisions and actions made by many people that have a cumulative effect. In the nature of systems, any change within a system has the potential to affect the functioning of the whole and each of its members. The “answer” to problems involves looking at a complex interaction of events, people, and ideas. Change comes as a result of exploring our relationship and participation in the problem. There are often no quick fixes, but slow shifts that unfold over time to create lasting results.
What does this mean for leaders?
A subtle but very important shift comes as leaders give attention to this larger and more systemic view, and begin to explore their own participation or role within a situation. At first this is a startling and disorienting shift in perspective. But as leaders become more acclimated to thinking systemically, a further shift can be explored. Within the unfolding web of interactions, leaders can come to realize that each of us has the power to initiate aspects of the needed transformation, and make the choice to step up to claim that power more fully.
A powerful source of change begins with self-change and a leader’s willingness to take personal responsibility for growth and transformation, and what Edwin Friedman calls “self differentiation”. Shifting our minds and hearts to a place where we begin to embrace the invitations that are present is claiming power that lies within. It is choosing to be fully present right where we are, working with the people and the issues that are right in front of our noses instead of focusing on what isn’t yet or what no longer exists.
As we seek the transformation that is needed in groups and organizations today, we must remember that the key to the transformation of the whole is the transformation of individuals, beginning with ourselves. Transformed and empowered people are the foundation for transformed organizations. As we find hope and energy for change within ourselves, we have the capacity to work with others to bring about the larger changes that are needed. Pro-active empowerment is choosing to live in the present as if it were already the future. It is thinking and acting as if the vision of transformation is already a reality today. As leaders commit themselves to this bold path, they empower themselves and empower others to join with them. They increase their capacity to inspire and lead by example.
To explore this aspect of empowerment more fully, we might ask ourselves:
- How am I participating in or contributing to a particular problem situation?
- How might I be benefiting (perhaps unconsciously) from the way things are? 
- What qualities of mind and heart am I bringing to the changes that are needed?
- What do I need in order to manifest the renewed vision within me? What will help me embody and inspirit the desired transformations for others?
- What choices do I (we) have to act (or not act) that might have great leverage for the whole?
- Would these actions be consistent with my highest values and those of the organization?
In a second article on Empowerment, we will explore “Re-Active Empowerment”.
1 Keck, L. Robert, Ph.D. Sacred Eyes. Knowledge Systems, Inc.
2 Friedman, Edwin H, Ph.D. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
3 Kegan, Robert & Lisa Laskow Lahey discuss “competing commitments” and the reasons why people don’t change in their book: Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.
Janet M Drey is the managing director of the Consortium for Contemplative Leadership, a community dedicated to advancing the adoption and practice of contemplative leadership. Find out more about Janet’s services and the Consortium here.