Leadership Lessons: Empowerment Requires Responsibility

I wrote an article several years ago on “The Power of Empowerment in Leadership” (Firehouse®, October 2008) and I recently received a great email from a chief asking about potential backlash with entitlement attitudes. The chief shared that in some situations, those empowered adopt the mindset that they, not the chiefs, are ultimately in charge. As a result, they begin to resist authority, especially when it comes to disciplinary issues.

Although my columns are directed at leaders of all levels, including informal leaders, many of them address management and leadership issues faced by chiefs. While this month’s column addresses some issues that chiefs must address, it is primarily intended for front-line firefighters, informal leaders and company officers.

Values-driven culture

To the chiefs: Leadership training at all levels in the organization is needed to instill the concepts of responsibility, accountability and humility and an understanding that these go hand-in-hand with empowerment. Without the reiteration and implementation of those values, empowerment can breed entitlement in some situations and a fight for the reins. Once that happens, management will attempt to pull the reins in and risk a perception of power hoarding.

A strong values-driven culture must be cultivated before an environment of empowerment can flourish. Nearly every fire department has a list of core values. If you don’t have “personal responsibility” as one of your core values, you should. Training and modeling this core value will be a key element to a successful attempt at empowering the people in your department.

True empowerment must include a strong leadership foundation that includes the willingness to train, develop and mentor others in the responsibility that comes with that empowerment. Many leaders are too lazy or too busy to engage in that process. They understand the need for empowerment but do not fully invest in the entire process of creating the balance between empowerment and responsibility.

To firefighters and company officers: It’s important to understand what must accompany the empowerment that you want your chiefs to relinquish. When you are empowered to make decisions and participate in processes that your chiefs are not legally required to let you participate in, you must embrace the responsibility and accountability that comes with that empowerment.

A firefighter in one particular department abused the empowerment he was afforded and needed to be disciplined. The union stepped forward and fought his discipline tooth and nail. The firefighter and the union were subsequently surprised when management pulled back the empowerment.

Another firefighter was caught bad-mouthing management and asked for my advice on his rights. I counseled him to stop focusing on his rights and instead focus on his responsibilities. I advised him to take responsibility and apologize because he was guilty of the bad behavior. He agreed that this was the right thing to do and thanked me for my input.

Three days later, the firefighter came back and said his union representative advised him against apologizing and suggested he keep his mouth shut until he knew the extent of what management knew and what the discipline might end up being. I then advised him not to complain to me about his department’s “bad management” and “leaders who won’t empower others.”

When you demand rights or empowerment without accountability and responsibility, you force management to give you the bare minimum required by law. If they see by your history that you won’t take responsibility when you mess up, management will tighten the command and control style of leadership. I am constantly advising leaders to empower others, but without responsibility, empowerment becomes entitlement.

If you are going to be one of those people who tries to get the union to get you out of discipline when you know darn well it is warranted, you don’t deserve to be empowered. You deserve to have the bare minimum of rights afforded to you by law. n