Stepping into a Zappos call center is like walking into a circus. Phones ring, voices rise, and laughter bounces around the room. If you closed your eyes, you'd think you'd entered a loud family reunion, not a billion dollar company.
Zappos employees work in a fiercely proud culture. Only 16 years after founding Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh has made the online shoe-retailer into one of best places to work in the world. Zappos employees not only love their work, they care deeply about others in the community.
How did Hsieh do it? By empowering his employees to lead.
In Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen writes, "At the heart of leadership is the leader's relationship with followers. People will entrust their hopes and dreams to another person only if they think the other is a reliable vessel."
There was a time when leaders thought their role was to exert power over others. No longer. Today's best leaders -- people like Ford's Alan Mulally, General Motors' Mary Barra, and Google's Larry Page -- recognize their leadership is most effective when they empower others to step up and lead. That's exactly what the new generation of Gen X and Millennials expect from their leaders, and they respond with great performance.
Tony Hsieh focuses on relationships first and business second. In good times and bad, Hsieh's communications are authentic, funny, and informal. He speaks directly and personally to his colleagues. As Hsieh says "if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff...will just happen naturally."
Hsieh reflects traits of an "empowering leader." These leaders have discovered that helping people find purpose delivers superior results than forcing subordinates to be loyal followers. By giving others the latitude to lead, they expand their own potential impact.
So, how can you empower others? In Discover Your True North, I profile five things great leaders do.
1. Treat Others as Equals
2. Listen Actively
3. Learn From People
4. Share Life Stories
5. Align Around the Mission
Treat Others as Equals
We respect people who treat us as equals. Warren Buffett, for example, gives equal attention to every person he meets. He has the same sandwich and Cherry Coke combination with a group of wide-eyed students as he does with his close friend Bill Gates. Buffett does not rely upon his image to make people feel he is important or powerful. He genuinely respects others, and they respect him as much for those qualities as for his investment prowess. By being authentic in his interactions, Buffett empowers people to lead in their own authentic way.
We are grateful when people genuinely listen to us. Active listening is one of the most important abilities of empowering leaders, because people sense such individuals are genuinely interested in them and not just trying to get something. The leadership scholar Warren Bennis was an example of a world-class listener. He patiently listened as you explained your ideas and then thoughtfully contributed astute observations that came from a deep well of wisdom and experience.
Learn from People
We feel respected when others believe they can learn from us or ask for our advice. The best advice I ever got about teaching came from my Harvard Business School (HBS) colleague Paul Marshall, who was one of HBS's greatest teachers. He told me, "Bill, don't ever set foot in an HBS classroom unless you genuinely want to learn from the students." I have taken his advice into every class I have taught for the past 12 years, telling MBA students and executives, "I feel certain I will learn a lot more from you than you do from me." The students find that hard to believe at first, but they soon see how their feedback helps me understand how today's leaders and MBA students think.
Share Life Stories
When leaders are willing to be open and share their personal stories and vulnerabilities, people feel empowered to share their own stories and uncertainties in return. On Thanksgiving eve in 1996, I sent an e-mail to all Medtronic employees, expressing my gratitude for the support Penny and I received following her ordeal with breast cancer and chemotherapy. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who spontaneously shared their stories with us.
Align Around the Mission
The most empowering condition of all is when the entire organization aligns with its mission, and people's passions and purpose synchronize with each other. It is not easy to get to this position, especially if the organization has a significant number of cynics or disgruntled people. Nonetheless, it is worth whatever effort it takes to create an aligned environment, including removal of those who don't support the mission.
Leaders of every organization have an important responsibility to articulate how their company contributes to humankind. At Medtronic, our mission was to restore people to full health and wellness. At Disney, it's to make people happy. Even at the most "boring" business-to-business company, the business can play a powerful role in improving the lives of its stakeholders - customers, employees, suppliers, and community.
With leadership comes responsibility. As Clayton Christensen wrote, "No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement."
It's time to lead authentically. You can do so by focusing on empowering others.
A team of empowered leaders all rowing in the same direction is hard to beat.