Push or Pull?

Why do you think most organisations are not empowering their employees? Or are they?

I was born and raised in outback Australia (Western NSW and Central Queensland). One clear memory I have is as a six year old riding with my Dad, mustering cattle and checking fences. The thing I noticed about our horses is that that during the ride they were very compliant and easy to control.


I remember once, after a long morning out, we and our horses were tired and as we approached the yards my horse bolted. The closer we got to the house yards, the faster it went.

It was kind of terrifying but thrilling at the same time.

Previously my Dad had warned me that as a horse approaches home it sometimes realises where it is going, and head off at a gallop to where the good food, clean water and comfort of the shade is.

They head off at a gallop because they know the goal, and want to get there! So to we as leaders need to empower those we lead to head for home, at a gallop.

The first issue any empowering leader, or any leader who seeks to be great, must face off is control. Beyond money or fame, what drives most leaders is power, the desire to control. Most leaders would give up nearly anything except control.

Many of our top executives behaviours be driven by power. These behaviours only reproduce others of the same ilk who think that greatness in leadership is control.

Leaders driven by control are deluded into thinking that they alone can master the complexity of an organisation from the top. If we cling to power as our identity, we can never rise past the limitation that behaviour, has enslaved us to.

A leader whose habits and behaviours are directed by the need to keep power and control will not share their power, nor will they develop other leaders whom they cannot control.

However, the best thing any leader can do to become great is to share their power, to lead a group of followers to becoming self contained and able to produce amazing results, with the drive to accomplish it on their own.

An empowering leader first engages their followers. Such a leader who can engage others and empower followers is a producer of leaders themselves. If we have the ability to produce more leaders we can lead anywhere. 

Lao Tzu (571-531 BC), describing an engaging and empowering leader says that:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves.” 1

When we engage with and empower our followers they will also say “we did it ourselves.”

William Kahn notes that engagement is “the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s ‘preferred self’ in task behaviours that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotion) and active full performance.”

According to Kahn this happens when work is:
Meaningful – value of a work goal or purpose, judged in relation to an individual’s own ideals or standards.
Safe – feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.
Availability – belief that s/he has the physical, emotional or cognitive resources to engage the self at work.

So people become engaged and empowered where work is both safe and available. Ultimately, when the organisations values/goals align with their own task, connections with others at work and their values/goals they become energised and empowered.

It is here where the problem begins.

Universum recently surveyed more than 2000 senior executives, including 365 CEOs and 887 heads of HR. They found that empowering employees ranked third highest (26%) with CEOs’, but number one with HR (48%), and Millennials (31%).

It appears there is a misalignment here. Our heads of HR and recruiting value empowerment. Our colleagues/employees/followers value empowerment. But our senior executives do not value empowerment as highly.

Rather, our top leaders believe that setting a clear vision and being goal oriented is the most valued aspect of leadership (31%). Most leaders believe that they need to push or pull the organisation towards it’s goals, when most of those within the organisation already know where home is, and want to head off at a gallop towards it.

So what is stopping most of us from doing just that?

In most organisations we are not permitted to challenge current (entrenched) thinking, be creative or make mistakes. Therefore most followers in an organisation are oppressed, compliant and easy to control and are unwilling to take risks.

Without their creativity and risk taking an organisation can easily become bogged down in past glories. Those behaviours which accomplished that greatness become outdated and entrenched as culture.

To quote The Old Testament, ‘A leader who is a great oppressor lacks understanding’ (Proverbs 28:16). Here the understanding we seem to lack in most organisations is that an organisation adaptability, creativity and growth requires an engaged and empowered workforce.

We as leaders can become “stuck” in culture and a strong desire to keep our position and power (in some cases at any cost). It takes a lot of humility to admit that we are stuck and need help, and that is just what we are saying when we engage with and empower our followers.

But doing so releases great energy as those ones who once plodded along become energised with the goal of reaching good feed and water. Empowering your employees and followers gives them the reins to reach the goals of the organisation through their own personal values, initiative and drive.

To once again quote Lao Tzu:
Therefore, desiring to rule over the people,
One must in one’s words humble oneself before
And, desiring to lead the people,
One must, in one’s person, follow behind them.

Jim Collins, (2001)., Good to Great. Harper Collins

William A Kahn. (1990)., Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal 1990, Vol. 33, No.4, 692-724.

Lao Tzu - Tao Te Ching, Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London, England, 2009

Brad Lomenick. 7 Thoughts for Next Gen Leaders

James Clear., Transform Your Habits

Universum. Talent Inside Out: How Talent Personas Influences Hiring Decisions (Part Three of a Four Part Series)

1 The original text says,
‘When the task is accomplished and his work is done
The people all say, “It happened to us naturally.”’


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