This weekend, during a leadership training course I am doing here in Singapore, I had a breakthrough that helped me finally understand something important about empowering others. Top executives get to where they are by learning to delegate early in their careers. Many of us (raise my hand) tend to confuse delegating with empowering. I have had a nagging feeling for years that I could be much more successful than I am. This breakthrough begins to provide the answer.
At one point, there was a physically challenging exercise that was done in buddy pairs, where the team of two needed to accomplish something that is physically very daunting and scary. The exercise was structured in such a way that one person (me in this case) cannot get across a barrier without the help of the other person. It is designed to help discover how to let go and trust others. I knew my partner was paralyzed by fear and depended on me. I managed to get us both across, even though I should not have been able to succeed. I felt proud and happy, then had comments from many people, including Sally who was watching, about how I prevented my partner from growing and discovering her own courage, and how I had just wasted the opportunity to trust someone else and learn. I didn't understand what they were saying until that night, when it finally became clear.
I can get through the most difficult obstacles. Take my health away, my sight, my money, and I know I can still do big things. I know that I can carry many people with me to success, no matter my limitations. I already know that. And my courage becomes stronger when I am supporting people that act less courageously (or that I think are acting less courageously), as I rise up to fill the gap. I already know that too. This makes me look and feel responsible, big, strong, powerful and courageous. And it has brought a certain amount of success into my life. But I have always felt that I could have succeeded much more, and now through this breakthrough I am seeing how.
What I learned yesterday is that what I am actually doing is draining others of their courage and feeding off of it to build up my own courage. This hit me hard.
This isn't simply a question of delegating tasks and responsibilities. It goes much deeper than that, since it relates to my way of being and the pleasure I get from being responsible and courageous. It is about learning to use one's strength and courage to empower others to find their own strength and courage. I know this sounds simple. I have read about it many times. But there was something about doing this in a structured physical process, and especially with this particular partner, which brought it alive for me in a way that I have never experienced before.
I have always loved this quote from I don’t know where: “Bad leaders, people hate. Good leaders, people love. Great leaders, people say ‘we did it ourselves’.”
Great leaders empower others to find and exercise their own strength and courage.