Monday, September 23, 2013

Empower: Should We Use That Word as School Leaders?

'Empower" is another slippery word, used with good intentions, but when we really break it down, it can have a very negative connotation." Mark Adams,Courageous Conflict: Leading with Integrity and Authenticity

I never really thought about the negative connotations that the word "empower" has until I read Mark Adams book Courageous Conflict: Leading with Integrity and Authenticity He makes sense when he points out that empowering someone means you are "temporarily giving them the power to do something, but that they really do not own it or possess it." It ultimately does mean that the one who is in a position of authority is granting those under his charge the authority to make decisions or take actions. Leaders like to throw around the word "empower" like it is some dispensation from on high, yet it does have the slight taint of "You can only do this because I have granted you the power to do it." Adams cautions leaders about throwing around such terminology. It can serve to actually undermine trust and morale. The word "empower" itself, suggests that the one on which power is granted is not on equal footing with the one granting that power. That's certainly fine if your intention is maintain a more authoritarian stance in regards to those you lead, but do not pretend that you are acting from a "servant leadership position" or that you are fostering a "team-like collaborative approach" to management. I suggest that we perhaps use terminology less loaded with this authoritarian bent. Words like entrust or simply calling it like it is: the person was granted the authority to take action.

I think leaders, especially in educational leadership, do a great disservice when they try to mask or otherwise make practices seem something they are not. They often try to use business terminology that does not quite capture the action, or they use terminology that sounds innocuous at first glance, but that language has meanings not intended. Authenticity and courage in leadership means being honest and authentic in our language too. We don't engage in using words like "empowerment" unless of course we know the full meanings and connotations of words. Don't call yourself a "servant leader" unless you actually do take on qualities of being a servant to those you follow. Our authenticity as leaders begins with the language and buzzwords we use. I, for one, do not like the word empowerment.


  1. Great piece. Had a principal once who constantly referred to himself as the "lead learner" in the building. The behind-his-back joke was that after every staff meeting or parent conference or teacher evaluation, he ran back to his office and opened his copy of "How to Be a Principal."

    1. Pretending that you are something that you're really not is never a good leadership practice. We are who we are. That does not give us permission to remain stagnant and not grow, but those we lead can quickly see when we are just using buzz words to make things seem one way when they're really not. I can imagine that the above principal would have been much better off admitting his shortcomings and that he is working on them.

  2. I wish you would not be so quick to cast this term aside. In the same way that Adams cautions against the flippant use of "empower," one could also argue against the word "leader." It, too, carries negative connotations - relegating some to a subordinate, "follower" status.

    Empowerment has a some very positive connotations as well. By giving someone permission to act, you are demonstrating trust in their abilities. To me, empower implies faith, confidence, high expectations, and support. In this way, empowerment is important in developing teacher leadership within schools.

    As leaders, it is our prerogative to give, share, keep, or distribute power as we see fit... even if it is only temporary.