Let’s Talk REAL Empowerment
In this second of three articles exploring drivers of successful strategy execution, Langley Sharp explores empowerment, or freedom with responsibility. In so doing, he reminds us of the power that increasing the autonomy and freedom people have to do their work, crucially requires taking on responsibility. We start with a military analogy, but one that will chime rapidly with the reader in terms of its parallel in business.
On 11th April 2011, a celebrity class of British historians met at the National Army Museum to decide once and for all who should be crowned Britain’s greatest general. The day-long debate analysed the virtues of five outstanding leaders, whittled down from a cast of dozens by the voting public, who over many centuries helped shape the course of our nation. The final verdict, a tie between the Duke of Wellington, most famous for his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo (and later twice Prime Minister), and Field Marshal Viscount Slim, the legendary, albeit lesser-known commander of the ‘Forgotten Army’ in Burma during the Second World War. The two generals presented a tale not only of two outstanding strategists – both in design and execution – but perhaps more tellingly, two individuals who espoused the very character of British Army leadership at their given moment in time. Wellington, an aristocrat born of wealth and status, was the archetypal ‘heroic leader’ personifying the great man theory, represented by a leadership style dominated by physical courage, honour and favouring a strict disciplinary code. He commanded in an era when leaders were understood to be born, not made. Field Marshal William Slim, serving almost a century and a half later, demonstrated how far Army leadership had evolved in line with the society in which it served. ‘Uncle Bill’ as he was more affectionately known, displayed on the one hand a sharp mind, an indomitable will to win and a commanding presence, on the other, great humility, a love and respect for his soldiers and an advocacy for empowerment.
Innovation, High Standards and Empowerment at Every Level
In May 1942, General Slim, a decorated World War I veteran, took command of Burma Corps in the face of a rapidly advancing Imperial Japanese Army. The feared Japanese had swept through South East Asia in the preceding months, claiming swift victories in Singapore and Malaya. Their superiority in Burma forced Slim’s men to fight and withdraw over 1600 kms to neighbouring India. Soon thereafter, he took command of the 14th Army, a British led, Indian-dominated multinational force, charged with preventing the Japanese from invading India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Slim was faced with a monumental task. He required a strategy that could not only compete and win against a formidable foe but, in so doing, had to overcome a number of significant challenges, from woeful logistics and crippling disease to inadequate training and rock-bottom morale. He was undeterred and resolute. In his acclaimed memoir, Slim describes how his soldiers turned Defeat into Victory, learning from the lessons of their Burma failures to not only prevent an invasion of India but, three years later, returning to the jungles of Burma to defeat their feared enemy.
At the heart of his success was a great strategy, enabled by lateral thinking, innovative methodologies, the highest standards, and, critically, trust and empowerment at every level of command – granting decision-makers at the point of action the freedom and responsibility to act upon their commander’s intent. Such an approach not only led to strategic success, but set the foundations for an institutional understanding of how to succeed in war that remains at the core of the British Army’s DNA to this day. Four decades later, Slim’s approach of decentralised command was embedded into doctrine. ‘Mission Command’, a philosophy first developed by the Prussian Army and now ubiquitous across the US and NATO, is one which is, ‘founded on the clear expression of intent by commanders, and the freedom of subordinates to act to achieve that intent.’ Moreover, it is underpinned by a fundamental guiding principle that necessitates an ‘absolute responsibility to act to achieve the superior commander’s intent.’ It is an approach that fosters speed of action, agility of decision-making and disciplined initiative. In today’s world where leaders across every industry attempt to execute strategy in an environment engulfed by complexity and change, the competitive advantage enabled by promoting freedom with responsibility is as applicable to the boardrooms and offices of the business world, as it was to the hills and jungles of Burma in World War II.
Realise the Cumulative Strength and Energy of Everyone
At its heart, this approach sets foundations for the most effective relationships to exist across an organisation. It establishes the conditions for collaborations and interplays that promote the maximum productivity of people, such that strategy has every chance of success. It is about realising the cumulative strength of every individual, working collectively towards a shared goal, in order to, in the business domain, optimise value generation within a given market. As Vigay Sathe, Professor of Management at The Drucker School illustrates, ‘If you look at the classic economic view of production or economic activity, you’ve got machines, you’ve got labour, you’ve got land. Well, people are the only infinitely expandable resource. So, not only is it the right thing to do, in terms of helping people grow for its own sake, but it turns out that it is a tremendous competitive advantage if you can really unleash the power of people.’ Rebecca Stephens, author of Making It Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution agrees; ‘[…] But at its heart, we all understand that the differentiating factor in implementing any strategy is the team, the people and the dynamics between them.’ To optimise this differentiating factor, it is argued, demands a culture of freedom with responsibility.
“The greatest motivation is contributing to success.”
-Patty McCord, Netflix-
Freedom is defined as ‘the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.’ Many Western nations, and to a greater or lesser extent elsewhere, have been on an evolutionary journey of freedom, devolved authority and empowerment for over two centuries, arguably accelerated in recent times through the advent of advanced communications. The notion of freedom is part of our cultural DNA and an ever-increasing driver for social change. Arguably, it is so embedded in our social fabric that for many it is an expectation and for some, taken for granted. Freedom gives agency and creates a sense of ownership. From a business perspective, optimising freedom sets the conditions for others to act, to create impact and to add value to the collective output that is sought.
Reminding People They Have Power
Freedom is aligned to the concept of power. Power, meaning ‘the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events,’ often incites negative connotations, but is a natural phenomenon in social relationships; it is ubiquitous. Successful strategy execution demands an understanding, and effective utility of power. Traditional structured hierarchies granted authorities and supporting policies have reinforced cultures that constrain power potential, both individually and collectively. Whilst command and control worked effectively in an industrial age of processed manufacturing and set against complicated problems, it is, as a central philosophy, at best limited, at worst redundant in today’s dynamic, complex operating environment. Optimising freedoms not only distributes power but enhances it. A paradox of power, much like trust, is that it has the capacity to increase the more it is given away. As Boston Consulting Group’s Yves Moriuex argues, businesses operating amid ever increasing complexity need ‘to give discretionary power to managers […] to increase the total quantity of power, so you can empower everybody to use their judgement, their intelligence. You must give more cards to people so they have the critical mass of cards to take the risk to cooperate, to move out of insulation.’ Patty McCord, Chief Talent Officer for Netflix, agrees that the evolutionary growth of complexity in business has stifled people’s ability to perform at their best, but views the concept of ‘empowerment’ differently. In her international bestseller Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, McCord declares:
‘As for empowerment, I simply hate that word. The idea is well intentioned, but the truth is that there is so much concern about empowering people only because the prevailing way of managing them takes their power away. We didn’t set out to take it away; we just over processed everything; we’ve hamstrung people. What I came to understand deeply […] is that people have power. A company’s job isn’t to empower people; it’s to remind people that they walk in the door with power and to create the conditions for them to exercise it. Do that, and you will be astonished by the great work they will do for you.’
Promoting freedom therefore is not only ‘the right thing to do’ for your people, but drives overall performance and underpins strategy execution. It does this by entrusting the right people at the right level to apply judgement and take initiative at the right time. Contextualised with clear intent, it encourages decision-making forward at the point of action, granting those closest to the point of impact who have the best situational exposure, with the ‘the power or right to act.’ This is particularly appropriate in fast-paced, uncertain and dynamic environments; characterising most working environments today. To be most effective however, such behaviours need to be intuitive, to be habitual. Freedom to think, to decide and then to act must be a part of the culture, not just enabled when the game is in play. This was understood by England football manager Gareth Southgate who, on assuming this high-profile leadership role, sought to nurture a culture of empowered decision-making:
‘I think if the players have ownership of what’s going on then that’s going to help them make better decisions on the field and also buy into the way that we are trying to progress […] I like them to have an opinion on the game, because in the 85th minute they have got to make a decision that might win or lose the game and we can’t make all those decisions from the sideline.’
Freedom – Agility – Innovation
The ability to nurture independent critical decision-makers across the organisation in turn generates tempo and agility, particularly appropriate in crisis but no less important as we navigate the myriad of challenges routinely presenting organisations. Assessing the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic, Professor Robert Van de Noort, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, reflected how agility and quick decision-making proved central to their ability to respond. Decades, and in some instances centuries, of institutionalised ways of operating required change ‘in the comparative blink of an eye.’ For Van de Noort, three tenets were key to success: a clear strategic vision based on the fundamental values of the organisation; open and transparent communication; and distributed leadership based on trust. To generate the speed and agility that was required, it was this final tenet that he argued proved vital. ‘A leader seeking to control all decision-making rapidly becomes, at best, a bottleneck and, at worst, makes decisions divorced from the needs of the frontline.’ Not only did this allow a more agile organisational response to the crisis but ensured that the right expertise was focused on the right problems. Furthermore, it provided much needed breathing space for the executive board, allowing them to focus solely on the strategically important decisions. ‘This distributed style of leadership can create ambiguity and uncertainty’ argues Van de Noort, ‘but it is also the best source of flexibility and agility.’ Like many institutions not just surviving but thriving amid such volatility, the results spoke for themselves; ‘Yet, through goodwill, hard work and a shared vision to help our students and our community, these principles of transparency and trust helped us turn a 20,000-student campus university into a virtual university within a week.’
With agility, comes innovation. Given freedom to act unleashes creativity and experimentation. Nurtured in the right environment it gives greater autonomy to teams to achieve strategic intent. As Reeves et al. argue in their HBR article Taming Complexity:
Human beings have a natural propensity to assert control. But especially for complex or dynamic problems, an emergent solution is often superior to a designed and micromanaged one. Instead of micromanaging each decision, smart companies realize that allowing individuals the freedom to engage in constant, iterative experimentation can lead to more-powerful outcomes […].’
Whilst a decentralised approach is argued to be vital for strategy success, freedom is not without limits. Freedom must be inseparable from responsibility.
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
-Viktor E. Frankl-
High performance teams are marked by an intuitive understanding that shared ownership means shared responsibility, at every level. There exists a collective commitment – to the purpose, vision, strategic intent, mission, organisational values, and to one another. In so doing, individuals have a sense of being part of something beyond themselves, beyond self-interested motivation and a transactional relationship with their work. As James Kerr author of Legacy: What The All Blacks Can Teach Us About The Business of Life states, ‘Shared responsibility means shared ownership. A sense of inclusion means individuals are more willing to give themselves to a common cause.’
Responsibility exists as an unwritten social contract between leader and led. Leaders owe it to their people to relinquish appropriate control, to communicate clear intent, to provide adequate resources, to train, nurture and support, to set boundaries and to trust. In turn, followers must take ownership, demonstrate horizontal and vertical loyalty and trust, act within agreed boundaries, and employ high standards and disciplined initiative. Followership, a concept all too often misunderstood and misrepresented, is a vital ingredient for success. It is the other side of the coin to the social relationship that is leadership. As Julian Stern Professor of Education and Religion at York St John University states, ‘A leadership theory without a complementary followership theory is like the sound of one hand clapping: it has no impact at all.’ True freedom with responsibility also empowers followers to constructively challenge. Ira Chaleff in his seminal book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, describes five characteristics of an effective follower: the courage to assume responsibility, serve, participate in transformation, take moral action and challenge. The full potential of a team or organisation cannot be realised without the appropriate environment for individuals to have a voice, to contend, and to offer their own views and experience. Simon Rattle, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, articulates how this manifests in one of the world’s premier orchestras. He describes an environment alive with argument and debate. Rattle, assuming great humility and self-assurance, understands that such active dialogue is not driven by egocentricity nor poses a threat to his authority as the de-facto leader, but is a healthy and necessary function for success. ‘They have a big personality, of course they’re stroppy. But the flip side is that they give so much. They discuss and argue back because they want it to be better.’
Critically, whilst freedom with responsibility may be conceptually understood, it cannot be realised independent of context. The art of successful strategy execution is understanding the prevailing context and adapting accordingly, necessitating balance and judgement from both leader and led; the ‘art of leadership.’ Leaders must have a comprehensive appreciation of their environment, be attuned to its changes and know their people. Only then can freedom and responsibility be effectively enabled. A highly trained and cohesive team where trust is implicit and loyalty assured is likely to assume greater responsibility than one newly formed and inherently less confident and competent. Equally, a crisis situation where the risk appetite is dynamic may necessitate varying degrees of freedom from the same team as the context evolves. US Army doctrine articulates how a commander needs to consistently judge according to context, resources and risk appetite.
‘Commanders concentrate and synchronize multiple units to mass effects, and they centralize or decentralize control of operations as needed to ensure units can adapt to changing situations. The appropriate degree of control varies with each situation and is not easy to determine [… but] affords subordinates latitude to exploit opportunities to seize, retain and exploit the initiative.’
“Trust is the highest form of human motivation.”
From seasoned business executives, to wartime generals, senior academics and elite sports managers, the universally acknowledged ‘vital ground’ for nurturing and optimising freedom with responsibility, is trust. As US Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen wrote, ‘Trust is both the fuel that drives the Army and the glue that holds it together.’ Effective interpersonal relationships, high performing teams and thriving organisations do not exist without it. Mutual trust, a two-way relationship, must exist at all levels. It takes time to develop, founded as it is on the everyday actions, behaviours and interactions of every individual. It takes consistency and effort and is hard won yet easily lost. Trust is built on accountability (of oneself and others), professionalism, shared experiences, respect, and integrity; every individual living the values and standards expected, doing the right thing and having the moral courage to stand up to what is right. It is forged through leadership by example. Without trust there is no team and without a team there is no strategy.
As articulated in the first of this three-article series, the enduring challenge of strategy lies in execution, bridging the gap between intent and delivery. In 1943, faced with seemingly impossible odds, Field Marshall ‘Bill’ Slim understood this intuitively. On the precipice of not only Allied defeat in Asia but with the very integrity of the British Empire in jeopardy, Slim recognised that victory required the full potential of his Army to be realised. Underpinned by clear strategic intent and priorities, high standards and rigorous training, and mutual trust at every level, it was ultimately his people who delivered. It is telling that the final words of his 630-page memoir are dedicated to the very people he imbued with freedom and responsibility:
‘[…] Yet there is one thought that I should like to be the overall and final impression of this book – that the war in Burma was a soldiers’ war. There comes a moment in every battle against a stubborn enemy when the result hangs in the balance. Then the general, however skilful and far-sighted he may have been, must hand over to his soldiers […] and leave them to complete what he has begun. […] To the soldiers of many races who, in the comradeship of the Fourteenth Army, did go on […] belongs the true glory of achievement. It was they who turned Defeat into Victory.’
Written by Langley Sharp, Author of ‘The Habit of Excellence – Why British Army Leadership Works’
 Slim, W.J. (2009), Defeat into Victory. London: Pan Books.
 In March 1944 the revitalised 14th Army defeated the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima on the Indian/ Burmese border. In 2013 the National Army Museum heralded these battles as Britain’s greatest ever military victories, surpassing those of D Day and Waterloo. See https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-battles-idUKBRE93K03220130421, accessed 10 Sep 22.
 Auftragstaktik:‘mission orders’ or ‘mission tactics’ – see https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/how-germans-defined-auftragstaktik-what-mission-command-and-not, accessed 10 Sep 22.
 Army Doctrine Publications Land Operations, Chapter 6, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/605298/Army_Field_Manual__AFM__A5_Master_ADP_Interactive_Gov_Web.pdf, accessed 6 Sep 22.
 Stephens, R. (2021) Making it Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution. London: Bloomsbury Business, p.208.
 Oxford Languages, https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=freedom+meaning, accessed 1 Sep 22.
 Oxford Languages, https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=power+meaning, accessed 1 Sep 22.
 McCord, P. (2017) Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. United States of America: Silicon Guild, p.xiii.
 Southgate is widely praised for the success he has brought to England football. In 2018, in his first tournament as manager, England reached the World Cup semi-final. Two years later the team earned a place in the finals of the European Championship, the first England manager to reach any major tournament final since 1966.
 Kerr, J. (2015) Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life. London: Constable, p.49.
 Stern, J., ‘Do You Follow? Understanding Followership Before Leadership’, Management in Education, 7 July 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0892020620942504, accessed 9 Sep 22.
 Chaleff, I. (2009) The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.
 ‘Army Doctrine Publication 6-0 Mission Command’, Headquarters, Department of the Army, May 2012, p.9.
 Caslen, R.L., ‘The Army Ethic, Public Trust and the Profession of Arms’, Military Review, 2011 (September), p.16.