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Leadership in the Age of Trust: Are You an Empowerer or an Empire Builder?

I was recently part of a panel on creating psychological safety for distributed teams, and my fellow panelist, Torin Perez, asked by a show of hands, “Who likes to be micromanaged?” Unsurprisingly, no one raised their hand. While it’s safe to say that most people don’t enjoy being micromanaged, they do appreciate direction, guidance, and support, and above all, they crave trust. In fact, psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson in 1999, is defined as “a shared team belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation.”

To me, psychological safety means having the grace to fail and the grace to succeed. In other words, trust. Trust is the currency that fuels the highest-performing teams. As a leader, you must ask yourself, “Do I entrust or distrust? Do I empower or empire build?”

Leaders who entrust and empower provide direction, autonomy, and clearly defined boundaries. They create a space for their team to take on challenges with the confidence of being supported and knowing their opinion is valued.

On the other hand, leaders who operate from a place of distrust can undo even the strongest teams and organizations. Trust lends itself to reliability and stability, because people know what to expect. Leaders who try to empire build by accumulating power, responsibility, or staff for their own self-aggrandizement are the antithesis of team.

If you’re empire building, you aren’t empowering your people — you are likely undermining them and ultimately your success and that of the organization.

Do you include or exclude?

If you’re an excluder, sharing information with a select group of people on the team or assigning projects to the same people over and over again, you’re not empowering your team. Exclusion breeds distrust and disadvantage, as those not in the know are unable to contribute to the overall success of the team.

Includers, on the other hand, work to get the most out of the team and ensure that everyone can contribute to the overall success. Sharing information among peers enables them to operate with less ambiguity and be more effective in their roles.

Teach or torment?

As leaders, it’s important to ask ourselves if we are teachers or tormentors. The best leaders empower their team and use every opportunity to make them stronger. The job of a teacher leader is to empower and get out of the way. In sports, the coach doesn’t suit up and get in the game. The coach sets the direction and the players carry out the vision because they are empowered and trusted to do so.

The tormentor, on the other hand, tears people down and works to disempower the team. This behavior hurts morale, makes the team less effective, and ultimately drives unwanted attrition, which weakens the bottom line of the organization.

Have a renters’ mentality or an ownership attitude?

Renters cede leadership and accountability when the going gets tough, but owners understand they own all outcomes, positive and negative. Leaders who have a renters’ mentality do not take full ownership of their actions and decisions. Rather, they may blame external factors or others when things go wrong.

On the other hand, leaders who have an ownership attitude take full responsibility for their actions and decisions. They understand that leadership requires taking calculated risks, and they’re willing to accept the consequences of those actions. These leaders are committed to their team’s success and are willing to put in the effort and hard work required to achieve it.

To cultivate an ownership attitude as a leader, it’s important to prioritize your accountability for your actions and decisions. This means being honest and transparent with your team, even when it’s difficult. It also means being willing to admit when you’ve made a mistake and taking steps to correct it.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. As a leader, it’s crucial to be consistent and evaluate whether you are enabling trust, providing direction, and giving your team the space to perform and take risks. If you find yourself embodying negative leadership characteristics, it’s important to make adjustments and embrace the full mantle of leadership.



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