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NEWS | July 31, 2009

Empowerment key to betterment

By Lt. Col. Matthew J. Frandsen 744th Communications Squadron commander

What is empowerment? According to Dictionary.com, "to empower is to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means; to enable or permit."

I see empowerment as one of our most critical skills as leaders: to build an environment of trust and empower others. In these days of increasing budget cuts and AFSO 21 further reducing our work force, we can't continue to do the job the same way we've always done it. We must continue to find new and innovative ways to accomplish the mission with the resources we have.

Empowerment ensures the people closest to the issues - the folks who will find those new and innovative ways to do things - have the power and authority to determine how those issues should be resolved, and then take the appropriate actions.

As leaders, we must remember that empowerment is not simply an act of delegation. We can't give or delegate power. Our job is to release the power that already exists in our subordinates based on their skills, knowledge, aptitudes and motivations, and remove the obstacles that keep them from acting with power.

So how can we empower? To start with, we should ensure our people know their purpose and how they fit in with the unit's goals. We all work better when we know we're part of something bigger than ourselves. We also make better decisions for our unit and our customers. Ensure they know their purpose, not just their day-to-day tasks.

The next step is to build the right environment - an environment of trust. We must support them when they do take a risk and use that power and authority. With risk, there are occasional honest mistakes, and that must be ok. Your subordinates must know they will not be reprimanded for making a mistake. They have to know that you can use mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning and that you "have their back."

Finally, we must ensure our people gain the knowledge and experience of empowerment. With knowledge and experience comes wisdom and competence. Empowerment is a learned experience. You will need to take time to grow your future leaders. This takes open communication so they can ask questions, discuss issues and share thoughts with you. Unless there's an emergency, they need the chance to work through issues and learn from experience.

We can all recall the great leaders we've worked for, and typically one of their greatest talents was the ability to identify and release the untapped potential in others, and then empowering them to do great things. But, empowerment from our leaders brings with it some responsibilities for us.

Empowerment is not simply a license to do whatever we think needs to do be done. As subordinates we must be responsible and use the power or authority empowered in us to ensure we are getting the job done for our customers and taking care of the organization. We must not be overzealous and make decisions without the experience or competence to do so. If we are "seasoned veterans," we must step out and take risks and make things happen. Rather than working like a robot simply doing what we're told, we need to take the initiative for our units and our leaders.

Shrinking budgets and manpower are realities in today's Air Force. One way we can continue to meet mission requirements is to ensure we are eliminating barriers and cultivating an environment of empowerment both as leaders and subordinates.