C.S. Lewis on Empowerment — Exploring Leadership Development

C. S. Lewis, Sigurdur Jonsson, Flickr

Photo Credit: C. S. Lewis, Sigurdur Jonsson, Flickr

Empowerment is vital for effective leadership. It is core to most of our relationships…from teaching, to parenting, to leading.

Leading People to Not Need Us

In discussing love and giving, C.S. Lewis implicitly engages the practice of empowerment. Lewis writes:

The proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.”

Celebrating Growth toward Independence

This principle is not only essential for effective parenting or teaching, it is also essential for effective leading. It raises a heart-searching question for us as leaders: Are we leading our people to dependency on our leadership, or are we leading them to a place of independence and interdependence?

Recognizing Leader Struggles Along the Way

Organizational leaders who hunger for power and position will have difficulty leading followers to a place of independence. Organizational leaders who struggle with personal insecurity will struggle to free followers to this place as well.

Secure and follower-focused leaders recognize that it is a win for both their followers and their organizations to create pathways where leaders may be both developed and empowered for service.

Finding the Reward of Empowerment

Lewis continues to press his argument:

Thus a heavy task is laid upon the Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say ‘They need me no longer’ should be our reward.”

All too often, our saying “they need me no longer” is viewed as a threat rather than a reward. But true love—love that holds the importance of others and their goals alongside our own goals—will lead in such a way that both leader and follower values, goals, aspirations, and dreams may be pursued.

Developing and Deploying Emerging Leaders

In reality, leaders who get the concept of developing and deploying their people do not work themselves out of a job, for such leaders are constantly creating new opportunities for new developing leaders. Great leaders create space for others to flourish. Great leaders identify potential, develop this potential, and release this potential into new roles and opportunities.

Leadership development does not need to be a zero sum game. Thriving organizations and entrepreneurial communities benefit from a regular flow of developed and empowered leaders released into new opportunities.

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How are you wired as a leader around these themes? Do you tend to hold onto authority over others, or are you wired to identify, develop, and release talent in the cause of your organization’s mission? Great leaders empower their people!

Tolstoy on Leadership

Leo Tolstoy, Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Leo Tolstoy, Wikipedia

I recently came across again an interesting essay by Tolstoy in The Leaders Companion by Wren. Tolstoy’s treatment of rulers and generals as historys slaves started the journey and caught my attention. The following excerpt of Tolstoy seems to capture the heart of the argument he makes:

In historic events, the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself. every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.”

Tolstoys Challenge to Leader Autonomy

In terms of my response to this, on the one hand I want to quickly dismiss this as an overly deterministic view of leaders embedded in history. On the other hand, when I sit with this a bit longer, I find it helpful to consider Tolstoy’s challenge to look beyond the leader as individual to the larger system of which the leader is part.

Factors beyond the Leader

There are not only leaders—the “great men” to which Tolstoy refers—there are also followers. On this point of followers Tolstoy writes, “It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real powershould consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals [the great men], and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.”

In addition to leaders and followers, as Tolstoy alludes, there are “an infinite number of diverse and complex causes” that make up the organizational, societal, and global contexts within which situations of historic magnitude are carried out. Leaders are not islands unto themselves—they are surrounded by followers and wider systems that influence them whether they recognize this influence or not.

The Limits of Autonomy for Prominent Leaders

Although I do not immediately like the overly deterministic interpretation of history, Tolstoy’s challenge is an important one to consider. His primary argument is that those of higher social standing—and those of more prominent leadership responsibility like the Napoleons and Alexanders of history—have limited personal determination that may be exerted outside of the “predestination and inevitability” of their actions.

Public Leadership in Historical Perspective

This goes against the grain of contemporary notions of leaders setting their own course. However, it is accurate to acknowledge that when a leader has a substantially broad scope of leadership responsibility, there are exponentially more factors that influence the decision making processes of that leader. Many of these factors are outside of the leader’s own personal wishes and determination. As Tolstoy notes, even when leaders appear to “act of their own will,” the reality may often be that leader decisions become involuntary “in an historical sense.”

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What do you think of Tolstoy’s argument about public and historic leaders? Do individuals actually lose some freedom, autonomy, and self-determination when they assume large-scale and global leadership responsibilities? Have you observed this as you read about large-scale and/or historic leadership?