These thoughts had their origin at the 2023 Faith in Business Retreat in Cambridge. Geraldine Latty was leading worship, and we were singing Holy, Holy, Holy.
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love, and purity.
In that worship moment, the idea of imitating a God who is Perfect in Power suddenly started to come alive to me and triggered a series of recollections of business experiences that have shaped my understanding of empowerment.
I recall being delighted when I was offered my first “management position” in the large company I had joined a few years earlier. I was invited to a sort of “rite of passage” moment which involved a meeting with the Divisional Director.
This is what I remember of what he said to me:
“I want you to stretch and grow all the people in your team and then move the best ones out at the top. Your job is to get them promoted, not to hold on to them. This company needs the best people in the most important jobs. I especially don’t want you to do what some of your colleagues do which is to hold on to the best ones and try to get rid of the others. They seem to think this is a game of pass-the-parcel! You are there to use your position to remove the obstacles that your team members encounter. In other words, you need to work for them. Whatever you do don’t let me catch you trying to take the credit for what your team members have achieved. You don’t need to worry about your own career. If you make a success of looking after this team, in the way I am asking, then I will trust you with a bigger team.”
One of the reasons I remember it so well is because, by the time it was my privilege to appoint new managers, I had become completely convinced of the merits of this approach and I used pretty much the same speech. By then I had worked out that the Divisional Director who first put these thoughts in my head was a Christian. It was while listening to a sermon on Philippians 2 that it later dawned on me, however, that he might not be the real originator of these ideas. They are an echo of St Paul’s words on humility which were specifically addressed to a strand of the Philippian church that was inclined to rivalry and vanity.
A leader’s role is to create an atmosphere of trust and encouragement in which people enthusiastically want to take responsibility. There is a huge difference between delegation (giving people tasks to do and being prescriptive about how they are done) and empowerment (creating a culture in which people understand the vision, willingly take on responsibilities and undertake their roles with the freedom to do it their way). When we use the expression “to empower people” it shouldn’t be a synonym for delegation, it should mean making it possible for people to grow by trusting them with whole areas of responsibility. A job is motivating when it feels like a complete business with inputs, outputs and opportunities for improvement. In this way of working, leaders take a vicarious satisfaction in the accomplishments of subordinates.
Despite my best attempts to embrace these thoughts, one of my most able team members came to me one day to explain that whilst he was unquestionably very busy, he didn’t feel “stretched”. My vision of empowerment evidently wasn’t working.
Etsko Schuitema offers a robust justification for this approach. His philosophy was forged in the tough context of the mining industry in South Africa during the apartheid years. At the heart of his approach is the idea that we work best when we actually want to, not when we are driven by either stick or carrot (i.e. appealing to fear or greed). What we are here calling a culture of empowerment, Etsko describes as leaders giving care to and enabling growth in their people. All the characteristics we might value in a good boss can be embraced in these two attributes. Care and growth, he argues, are the essential criteria of legitimate power in a superior-subordinate relationship. In other words, any relationship of power is legitimate if the aim of that relationship is the empowerment of the subordinate. Put another way, we will willingly work for the boss who genuinely cares and invests in our development. Any other approach invites one or other form of push-back against authority.
Etsko goes on to argue that empowerment is about the incremental suspension of control. In that way, it has a strong parallel with parenting which is also about gradual and incremental suspension of control as a child grows and develops.
This isn’t only about the way business leaders behave, it also has implications for flatter organisation structures for example. Whilst all this may sound rather “soft”, Etsko makes clear that to work this way requires both generosity and courage. This isn’t about managers doing things to make themselves popular with their subordinates. It doesn’t take away tough decisions. There is an old adage that leaders should be “ruthless in decision but compassionate in execution”. This also offers another way of differentiating leadership from management in that we lead people but we manage resources. When we call people “human resources” and manage them like processes and assets – we are a very long way from an empowering culture.
An important prerequisite to creating a culture in which people take empowerment is that they all share and buy into a common vision. If people are given degrees of freedom to operate on their own initiative without a clear sense of the big picture, the results will be confused and disconnected. Equally, a shared vision without empowerment is likely to be little more than a dream. Shared vision and empowerment go hand-in-hand.
A central plank of Jesus’ ministry was the sharing of the vision of the Kingdom of God. Parables start with the words, “The kingdom is like …”. Piecing these explanations and examples together builds a composite picture enabling followers to understand and embrace the big picture.
In giving away power we are doing exactly what Jesus did, “And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”. Later we read, “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!
Whilst my frame of reference for this is Biblical, Etsko interestingly comes from a Muslim, Sufi context. The ideas of servant leadership can be embraced from more than one starting point.
Jeff Cox and William C Byham  describe every encounter we have with another person as an opportunity to “zapp” them. A positive interaction leaves the person energised and encouraged. A negative interaction, on the other hand, would “sap” them, leaving them drained and discouraged. Byham describes “Zapp” as the “lightening of empowerment”. The Divisional Director who first planted these ideas in my head would always take the long walk to wherever he was going in order to “zapp’ as many people as possible.
Business life is full of behaviours that contradict these ideas. High on the list is micro-management. Often made easier by today’s IT solutions, this is about the centralisation and retention of power and control.
I recall bemoaning my experiences of exaggerated micro-management with a colleague over lunch one day. He instantly quipped that he would be very happy to change places with me because he was experiencing “pico-management!” As any salesperson will tell you, people in senior positions in large companies often have surprisingly limited power and authority.
Also common is the practice of appearing to give away responsibility but then intervening and dabbling. This doesn’t amount to giving away power in the first place. Another inhibitor is a business in which people feel insecure. Insecurity only increases the likelihood of controlling behaviours.
Many of these contradictory behaviours and inhibitors are perfectly plausible behaviours in a secular business. The idea of leadership through care and growth is just as upside-down and counter-cultural as anything in the Sermon on the Mount.
It is well understood that God’s blessings are given not for our own edification but to be used in the service of others. We are called to pass on unconditional love, forgiveness, grace and mercy into the lives of others. The more we give away, the more we receive. What is less immediately obvious is that when we are given power, it is to be passed on in much the same way.
 Leadership: The Care and Growth Model, Etsko Schuitema, Intent Publishing, 2022
 Luke 9:1-2
 Luke 10:17