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Turn our units into leadership labs

Ron Lee, 88th Civil Engineer Squadron civilian leader

Ron Lee, 88th Civil Engineer Squadron civilian leader

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Empowerment — a common buzzword today, but what does that really mean, and how do we do it?

Let’s just wave a magic wand, tell unit personnel they’re empowered and it’s done, right? In our dreams, but not in real life.

Empowerment is giving others the authority or power to do things, to make decisions. If it’s not present, it requires changing the culture, which takes time and consistent effort. It’s about enabling leadership at all levels, forging goals as a team and changing procedures to allow delegated decision-making.

A few years ago, I took a new position, and early on, I had subordinate supervisors routinely bringing problems to me, looking for direction. They’d describe the problem, and I’d ask for their recommendation to rectify the issue.

They’d give me a couple of ideas, and I’d ask them which one was best. They’d pick one, and I’d tell them to go do it.

A few weeks went by, and it got to where they’d bring me proposed solutions with the problem. I’d still push them to select the solution, and then tell them to go do it. A few more weeks went by, and it got to where they’d visit to let me know what they had done to solve some issue — office visits became fewer.

Sometimes, their solutions would amaze me, and other times, I was not impressed with the solution; but it was their solution that would resolve the issue. I could help guide the discussion by asking questions, while leaving them freedom to make the decisions.

A harder test occurred later when we discussed a significant issue as a team, and my team settled on a solution I didn’t think would work. Did I use my authority to force what I believed was a better solution, or let them enact their proposed solution?

I decided that reinforcing empowerment was more important than what might happen if they failed as a team on this particular process. Regardless of the outcome, they would grow as a team.

Not all innovative decisions will work, and that is OK — they allow us to learn and improve as a team.

Note how this lines up with the Stephen Covey concept of getting employee commitment — it is their plan, which helps motivate them to accomplish the task and see that it succeeds. It also brings about quite a shift in employee job satisfaction and personal pride, both of which make a difference in work efficiencies and quality, which ultimately improve partner satisfaction.

More recently, I took a new position, and found myself approving training plans and target-grade promotions for personnel who worked four levels below me, along with every squadron purchase down to a $12 tool. I was clearly not the right person to approve these, and we delegated a lot of decisions to people closer to the action.

Specify goals and let the people closest to the stakeholder and piece of equipment make the decision — they know the issues best and impact our service the most.

With empowerment comes new requirements — people making decisions need more knowledge and a broader perspective, which is up to leadership to provide. We need to provide more technical training to our personnel so they can make more informed decisions, along with passing on our broader perspective. We also need to tolerate failures within limits, to clearly demonstrate they have the authority to make decisions, and that we will support them.

The goal is not really empowerment, but rather transforming everyone into leaders. It’s a journey that creates agility, pride, and new/better ideas, all of which improve our mission accomplishment. It also turns our units into leadership laboratories, which make our units better.