Leadership Through Autonomous Empowerment

Leadership and Management. These two terms get tossed around and interchanged pretty frequently. While they are both traits and skills possessed by the leaders in our organizations they have different meanings and applications. Leadership is setting the example, motivating your team, and coaching associates for personal success. Management is controlling and directing your team to achieve a specific goal within a set timeframe. Leadership focuses on growth, management focuses on results. A good leader must be able to navigate both.

We won’t delve into the idiosyncrasies of management today, we will discuss a leadership method that I have successfully applied to teams that I have worked with, something that I like to refer to as autonomous empowerment. 

Full Autonomy

Autonomy is defined as freedom from external control or influence, or simply independence. Some managers tremble at the idea of allowing their employees to conduct business unchecked and that is where the first breakdown of leadership occurs, a lack of trust. Your associates are deserving of your trust. If they are not then they should not be employed by your company. Allowing untrustworthy people to remain under your employ is one of the largest mistakes a leader can make, while you may think you couldn’t possibly live without the production they bring to your operation, the damage they cause that you do not know about is unmeasurable and far outweighs the benefit. 

So if you only have associates you trust, why can’t you trust them to do their job without your interference or interjection? This might be hard to hear, but maybe you are the problem? You will never retain a talented workforce if you cannot learn to trust openly and fully. Good associates want to do a good job, give them the leeway to show you how well they can perform. 

How do we get to full autonomy? For associates who conditioned to being dependent you will be most successful if you ease into it. Don’t just hand them the keys and say “you’re on your own, show me what you can do!” You still need to support your team. Start with easy tasks that don’t have a major impact on the business, any task that takes time but adds no value is a good place to start. Let them decide how important those task are, maybe you will find out you won’t have to shut your doors if your associates don’t check and respond to emails every 10 minutes. 

Another way to look at autonomy is the antithesis of micro-management. I once worked as a field technician supervisor and had the most technicians of any supervisor in the company. I had placed great emphasis on the importance of job satisfaction and enjoyment of work for my team. I provided my team with full autonomy as it related to the initial communication and appointment scheduling with our customers. The way I saw it, these technicians created more meaningful relationships with the customers than some guy in an office (me) ever could. I went as far to say that as long as they put in a 50+ hour week they didn’t have to tell me if they were coming in late or leaving early, all I cared about was that we took care of the customer. They did exactly that, rarely did I have to follow up on a service request that was aging, and when I did there was typically a good reason for it. 

How is this leadership? It sounds like you are just delegating your responsibilities to your sub-ordinates. Essentially yes, it makes your life as the leader much more manageable, especially when you have a very large team. You are coaching your associates to embrace independence, think for themselves, take control of their job, and grow professionally. When given enough autonomy the future leaders of your organization will emerge.


Now if you were uneasy with the thought of autonomy you are going to hate empowerment! Defined as authority or power given to someone to do something, this takes autonomy to the next level. With empowerment you are giving your associates the go ahead to make business decisions on behalf of the organization, decisions for which you will ultimately be held responsible. Scary stuff. Well, there needs to be parameters around the decision-making power you delegate to your associates. The easiest way to do this is to refer them to the corporate culture, does the decision you are about to make fall in-line with the core values of the organization?

An example of this from the same group of technicians I referenced above would be when I told them they could offer invoice discounts to a customer on-the-spot if they felt a relationship was in jeopardy. While we were in the business of making money, you can’t do that without customers, and unhappy customers tend to tell others about their unpleasant experience. Now I qualified this by providing a parameter of up to $500 in discounts, and left it up to the technician to gauge if less would appease the customer, if they needed the full $500, or if they needed to bring me in for a larger discussion. The most common discount we provided was a $250 discount for travel charges. Being able to offer that discount on the spot immediately changes the conversation. We hear you, you aren’t satisfied, how can we make this right for you?

Obviously any decisions that involved safety or legal matters always needed to be cleared with management, but there are so many examples of inconsequential decisions that can be made by those on the front lines interfacing with your customers. Empowerment gives your associates additional tools to grow relationships with your customers and provide a better service or product. 

Bringing it all together

Your associates are the most important resources and assets your organization has. It cost a lot of money to recruit them, more money to train them, and each year you need to incentivize them in a way that keeps them from leaving your organization. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group once said “train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they won’t want to.” As a business owner or leader you owe it to your associates and followers to challenge them to be great. You don’t want associates who are complacent or only working for the paycheck. Here is a checklist of how to develop autonomous empowerment amongst your team.

1. Define the job tasks and responsibilities clearly

2. Assure multiple lines of communication are available and encourage their usage

3. Always be soliciting feedback and never take it personally

4. Ask how you can make their lives easier

5. Reinforce corporate culture and core values

6. Trust them and don’t look over their shoulder

7. Focus on the importance of team building

8. Praise associates for taking risks

9. Coach associates that failure is just an opportunity for growth

10. When an associate fails, you as a leader own the scrutiny and fallout

11. When an associate succeeds, they deserve all the praise

12. When the team succeeds, they deserve all the praise

Leading is Selfless

Nobody said being a leader was going to be fun, the real joy is watching your followers achieve their personal and business goals and knowing you had some influence in their journey. Your followers look up to you, but that doesn’t mean you’re above them. If anything, they are above you and it is your duty to serve and support them. 

Provide autonomy, empower the team, enjoy the ride.

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