Is Leadership just a numbers game?

There used to be a view that business leaders merely told their workers what to do and the workers got on with it.

This simplistic, “authoritative” style of business leadership was dubbed “Theory X” by Douglas McGregor in his book, “The Human Side of Enterprise”. McGregor went on to suggest a different theory of business leadership — which, unsurprisingly, he named “Theory Y”. It said that, to get the best from workers, you had to trust, coach and encourage them.

In modern business parlance, this equates to empowerment. It involves giving team members the authority to make decisions, including decisions that were once the sole preserve of ‘managersʼ. Although itʼs allied to the practice of delegation, the key concept behind empowerment is trusting workers to make decisions that will help their organisation prosper.


Empowerment occurs when people feel confident both about what theyʼre being expected to do and the consequences — in other words, what happens if it goes wrong, or right.

To be effective, empowerment needs defined limits. Not imposing these limits increases the likelihood of failure and, if that happens, further empowerment opportunities will stop.

Furthermore, if people donʼt feel confident about the areas in which theyʼre being invited to operate, they‘ll give up. To prevent this, these people will probably need access to some additional learning and development materials before they can fully embrace the opportunities that empowerment brings.

Empowerment has many supporters — especially among workers, who enjoy being trusted. However, adopting this approach can be challenging for business leaders who need convincing that adopting “Theory Y” wonʼt drain away the authority and organisational status they have enjoyed.

Erik Hiep, an Associate Professor at Headspring Executive Development, an organisation formed by the Financial Times and IE Business School, believes that, to build a winning organisational culture, you need to:

  • Have — and communicate – clear vision, mission and values
  • Develop and communicate your strategy to everyone in the organisation
  • Combine business challenges with people development
  • Unleash the potential in your organisationʼs people, leadership and culture
  • Adjust performance metrics and steering as necessary
  • Focus on quality in people — which means investing in coaching and developing them

People not Numbers

“Companies want strong results, in terms of profits, revenue and market share,” Hiep believes. “These results are couched in terms of numbers — but companies can only achieve these numbers if they have a strong client relationship. Achieving that involves people, not numbers.

“To build a strong organisation that has a clear vision, mission and values, you need a strong team — and establishing a strong team requires developing trust, mutual understanding, an understanding of the ‘big pictureʼ, co-operation to create consensus, strong communication skills, the ability to deal effectively with conflicts and a feeling of personal autonomy even though youʼre part of the team.”

These things are key components in empowerment and each component involves some degree of on-going change. Like any change, empowerment should be linked to a clear outcome. So, if people are empowered, thereʼs a clearly defined set of outcomes that should follow.

Complex Process

Developing an empowering leadership culture can be a complex process.

Leaders are influenced by factors including the external environment, strategic ambitions, challenges, individual personalities, capabilities and team dynamics and so on. These factors are interwoven and should be clarified and understood – to identify opportunities and obstacles preventing an empowering culture.

Jim Collinsʼ book ‘Good to Greatʼ explains how empowering leaders brings about transformational long-term sustainable financial and people results. Thereʼs also Patrick Lencioniʼs ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Teamʼ — which reveals that, without trust, you donʼt have open communication and that leads to less commitment, a lack of accountability, a disempowering culture and poor results.

In Erik Hiepʼs view, “The key to all of this is ‘trustʼ. Trust is the oil and the glue of the team — and, indeed, of the whole organisation.”

He believes that there are three levels of trust in organisations. This involves developing:

  • Self-trust and trust in the team
  • The alignment of the various teams in the organisation
  • Reputation (for delivering on promises, for example)

Everyone wants to be trusted and, when that happens for us, we trust others in return — and concerted progress can be made.

“To build a strong team, you need strong people,” Hiep continues. “Strong people need self-confidence — and building this is a ‘super-dynamicʼ process.”

This makes it a difficult process to manage — not least because thereʼs a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance.

Developing and managing self-confidence in an organisationʼs workforce poses a problem for business leaders and L&D professionals alike. As L&D professionals know, the style and quality of business leadership can build — or destroy — individualsʼ self-confidence, and people with low levels of self-confidence are only going to perform averagely, at best.

On the other hand, empowering leadership tends to build strong people. In turn, these build strong teams, strong organisations and, then, strong results.

Following this ‘strong resultsʼ model – of ‘build the person, build the team, build the organisationʼ – to help their organisation be successful, L&D professionals always need to be asking the question, ‘where does it hurt?ʼ, so that they can then pinpoint the area in the business that needs changing.

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