I actually have an issue with the idea of “empowering followers to take a more active role in leadership.” The entire point is that people do not exist in a dichotomous world of leaders vs. followers, but instead live a world governed by complex relationships. Organizations’ find leadership throughout, even when the leadership relationship is not formalized. This is first year leadership stuff — there are many types of leadership – formal leadership, referential leadership, expert leadership, charismatic leadership and more. These different types of leadership exist throughout the organization so it is not a matter of “followers” taking a leadership role, it is a matter of recognizing that the company is full of leaders.
Ogawa and Bossert (1995) note that “leadership flows through the networks of roles that comprise organizations,” so there are opportunities for leadership to emerge at any number of points within the organization. This is usually what happens, and the best companies will encourage this process because all of these leaders can offer more to the company when their leadership is recognized and allowed to be given voice. If their leadership is suppressed, that will only be the detriment of the organization.
Indeed, many modern companies use organization-wide leadership as a source of competitive advantage, especially where it comes to driving innovation. DiLiello and Houghton (2006) note that people who are strong self-leaders are critical to innovation processes in organizations, because of their willingness to take initiative and bring others in the organization along with them. The more the organization can do to support these individuals, the more they will likely contribute to the organization’s overall success in the innovation sphere.
There are times when empowering followers is challenging, however. Some organizations have a culture that has built up where the employees are not empowered at all and seemingly do not want to be. Such organizations will often have a history of attracting people with limited leadership potential, while those with leadership will have moved on to other organizations. There are several different questions that arise with the issue of empowerment. First, it has to be approached the right way — it is sometimes implemented in a top down fashion, which of course is antithetical to fostering strong leadership capabilities with from within — leadership cannot be handed to people (Quinn & Spreitzer, 1997). Senior management, if it wants to empower the workforce, has to let go of the process a little bit — if there is fear of empowered employees the process will not flow naturally and will ultimately never really get off the ground, especially where there has not been a culture of empowerment before.
One of the keys to empowerment is that the organization needs to reduce structural distance, because that distance emphasizes a lack of empowerment, so again one of the biggest challenges is with the existing leadership being willing to let go of power in order that employees might take on bigger roles (Avolio, et al., 2004).
An interesting study on empowerment shows that the benefits of empowerment are most effective for employees with low levels of industry knowledge and experience, perhaps encouraging them to take more ownership. Contrary to what might be expected, experienced and knowledgeable employees stand little to benefit from empowerment programs — perhaps they already feel empowered (Ahearne, Mathieu & Rapp, 2005). So there is also the question of fit between the organization and empowerment programs that needs to be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, it is valuable for employees to be empowered, and the senior managers should see everybody within the organization as having some contribution that they can make in terms of leadership, because empowerment cannot simply be a top-down process disseminated to “followers” from up above — that’s just not how it works.
Ahearne, M., Mathieu, J. & Rapp, A. (2005). To empower or not to empower your sales force? Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 90 (5) 945-955.
Avolio, B., Zhu, W., Koh, W. & Bhatia, P. (2004). Transformational leadership and organizational commitment: Mediating role of psychological empowerment and moderating role of structure distance. Journal of Organizational Behavior. Vol. 25 (2004) 951-968.
DiLiello, T., Houghton, J. (2006). Maximizing organizational leadership capacity for the future: Toward a model of self-leadership, innovation and creativity. Journal of Managerial Psychology. Vol. 21 (4) 319-337
Ogawa, R. & Bossert, S. (1995). Leadership as an organizational quality. Educational Administration Quarterly. Vol. 31 (2) 224-243.
Quinn, R. & Spreitzer, G. (1997). The road to empowerment: Seven questions every leader should consider. Organizational Dynamics. (1997) 37-49.