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  November 7, 2014
The Secret of Empowerment...


"If you can’t fly, then run... if you can’t run, then walk... if you can’t walk, then crawl... but no matter what you do, you need to keep moving forward"
                           ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

"What is it that motivates us to act?... why do we do what we do?"...

I was sitting at a small cocktail table at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas last Wednesday night, listening to a conversation between John, an OptiFuse sales rep, and Dave, a product manager for a large automotive distributor. 

John and Dave had once worked together at a Fortune 500 company, but in the 20 years hence both have gone off into different career directions.

After several drinks, the conversation had become somewhat philosophical each of us taking turns expressing our ideals of motivation and leadership while reliving some of our success and failures of our long careers.

Dave started this particular segment of the conversation by announcing to our small group that there were only two types of people... those who were self-motivated to work hard and everyone else. 

John then added his opinion by stating, "today, most people want instant gratification... they no longer want to create relationships with their customers... they simply want to be order takers spending as little time as necessary to answers some basic questions and then move on someplace else... I really think that this is a byproduct of the Internet age where everyone’s attention span is 15 seconds."

As I sat there and listened to both men debate back and forth... my mind drifted back to late October in 1978.

I was sitting in a small make-shift work-out room behind the gymnasium at my high school.  Seated around me were approximately 40 or so high school wrestlers on the first day of practice.  Sitting in a big circle so everyone was facing each other, we each took a turn speaking to the group, starting with the freshmen and working our way to the seniors on the team.

This was an annual ritual that had reverence and pride.

In a loud voice, we announced to each other and ourselves, exactly what were our personal goals for that upcoming season.

In a somewhat muted voice, some of the boys said, "to try and win a few matches"... others said, "to try to make the varsity team"... others said, "to try to become the league champion"...

Finally, it was time for a few of the team captains to speak...

In a clear and loud voice they announced one after another that they would be a state champion... they wouldn’t try... they wouldn’t do their best... no... they would be... a state champion.

In a flash, you could see success in their eyes... they felt empowered... as though nothing could stop them from achieving their goal.

Empowerment is a word that many different organizations throw around haphazardly to try and motivate their staffs.

Leaders will tell their followers that they have been empowered to do their best... treat the company as though they were owners... and make a difference...

Yet these are the same leaders who don’t think twice about laying-off workers to make the quarterly numbers, firing someone for making a bad decision, or taking all of the credit for a job well-done.

For someone to truly be empowered, they need to feel safe.  They need to have the freedom and autonomy to operate without fear of retribution or ridicule from their leaders or their peers.  They must believe that the cause or end-result has merit (or in the case of a sales person... they must truly believe in the product and/or service that they are selling).

No one around the room that day laughed, snickered or offered a critical comment when a wrestler spoke of their goals that first day.  Each wrestler knew that if they were to achieve their individual goals that year, they would need the help and assistance of their teammates and their coaches to help train them... motivate them... and drive them to become a better wrestler.

Shortly after that first team meeting, the coaches would meet individually with each wrestler to discuss a plan to prepare the young man to achieve their goals.  During this meeting, the coaches typically asked the following three series of questions to each young man: 

  1. Are you capable?  - Do you have the intestinal fortitude to do all of the things that are necessary to get better?  Will you do the hard work? Do you have all the training you need?  Do you have the heart?  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  Where do you need help? - These series of questions cause the wrestler to take ownership of their goal.
  2. What exactly is your plan to achieve your goal? - Why do you think that your plan will work?  What do you need to make your plan work? What can we do as coaches to help you? What are the milestones that you would want to hit along the way? - These series of questions cause the wrestler to break down the larger goal into smaller segments allowing for better feedback while creating an opportunity for adjustments and fine-tuning along the way.
  3. If you achieve your goal, will it have been worth all the hard work? - Have you given much thought as to why you’ve chosen your goal this season?  What will you need to give up to succeed and do you think the sacrifice is worth the reward?  - This question is to attempt to have the wrestler understand their "Why" or purpose for setting this goal and will their passion overcome all of the resistance that prevents them from succeeding?

Now as a freshmen, you have never gone through this process, so your responses to the coaches’ questions are generally not all that well thought out, however by the time you were a senior, you had thought long and hard about your goals for that upcoming season and you had rehearsed your answers all summer long.

By the time you finished the interview process, you owned your goals... there was no going back... you had committed not only to the coaches... not only to the team... but you had committed to yourself and to doing whatever it took to achieve  the goals that you had set out to achieve.

Truth be told, the real goal of the coaches was not to create great wrestlers... but rather to create great leaders who know that they have ownership over their own lives.  

It wasn’t about actually winning or losing... it was about the process of creating winners.

As my attention returned to John and Dave, I spoke.

"Guys... I need to respectfully disagree with your assessment... I believe that everyone has the power within them to become great leaders... I know this is true because I’ve seen it in action.  

The key to empowering people is getting a person to actually believe that they can do it and then getting them to take ownership for their success or failure.

It’s our jobs as leaders to create an environment where people can gain knowledge, training, experience and feedback... so that they believe that they are competent enough to be successful... competency breeds confidence... and confidence begets empowerment... if you want people to succeed... then you need to lead them to success."

They looked a bit stunned at my response... but were soon nodding their heads in assent... while the topic of discussion soon turned to another important subject... the merits of an IPA versus a pale ale.

However, as I ventured back home today, I couldn’t help but give a great deal of thanks and gratitude to the teachers and mentors that I’ve had throughout my life.  These important life lessons were not learned from reading case studies in a book... but rather by actually doing... succeeding and failing along the way...

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse where we believe that there is an empowered individual in each and everyone of us and that we only need some inspiration and leadership for the empowerment to emerge.


Jim Kalb

Email -  jimk@optifuse.com
Website - www.optifuse.com
Blog - www.optifuse.blogspot.com 

Twitter - @OptiFuse

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