Rule 9: Empower those around you

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For the longest time in the history of humankind, we lived in a world defined by scarcity. Forests for hunting, land for agriculture, wood for construction and mining sites — all were scarce resources that many wanted to have, and consequently, we competed. Individuals competed against individuals. Tribes competed against tribes. Nation-states competed against other nation-states. The core mindset was that if one gets the resource, the other loses it.

Even when humans collaborated, the overall goal still was to outcompete other groups and within the groups, hierarchies developed with those higher up in the hierarchy looking to control those below them. Many of us, upon reaching a certain standing, become addicted to the reputational benefits and we look for ways to avoid losing our position — controlling those below us to avoid potential rivalry and gain the most benefits, for example, has proven to be very effective. The challenge, in a digital world, is that the rapid change causes continuous disruption of hierarchies, making positional power ephemeral. Hence, rule 6 states that we should build skills, not position.

Although I don’t believe that our instinctive desire for competition and control will magically disappear, it’s important to realize that we live in a world where scarcity is largely a thing of the past. At least in the Western world, we all have enough food, can clothe ourselves, have a roof over our heads, access to health care, and so on. Several industries aim to maintain a sense of scarcity, but it’s largely an illusion. One of the most blatant examples is De Beer’s semi-monopoly on diamonds for jewelry. We crank out industrial diamonds by the ton and these are used in all kinds of tools for construction work. However, when it comes to an engagement ring, suddenly the diamond that costs pennies to manufacture now costs thousands. All because the industry manages to maintain an illusion of scarcity.

As the economy digitalizes, more and more value creation is digital. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, this is great news from an environmental perspective as wealth is less and less associated with physical goods, reducing the pressure on the planet. However, in a digital world, there also is a disappearance of scarcity. Although some try to create artificial scarcity, such as through non-fungible tokens (NFTs), an inherent property of digital assets is that the creation of copies is basically free and without loss of quality.

The fact is that we live in a world of abundance and all our needs on the lower stages of Maslov’s pyramid are met and taken care of. The main challenge for most of us is the self-actualization stage: how can we grow into the best version of ourselves and pursue the challenges that we feel align with our purpose (see rule 1). Accomplishing this, however, is the key challenge in life and we need all the help we can get.

This brings me to rule 9: empower those around you. For those of us in formal or informal leadership roles, which should include all of you, my dear readers, this has at least two implications. First, rather than telling people around us how they should do their jobs, discuss and agree on the desired outcomes and then let individuals and teams figure out the best approach to achieve this. As I discussed in rule 2, there are several tools available for this, including objective and key results (OKRs) and Hoshi Kanri. To empower those around us, we should refrain from our natural tendency to tell people what to do and how to do it and instead focus on helping others accomplish the desired outcomes.

Second, our responsibility is also to help others clarify their purpose, even if this may be counterproductive for our own goals. I fundamentally believe that the best possible world we can have is one where every individual is clear on his or her purpose and has the opportunity to pursue this. We’ve all seen situations where employees simply are in a place that goes against their purpose, ambitions and desires, resulting in them getting stuck. Helping those around us to get unstuck, even if it means helping people out of the company, may be the best possible outcome for everyone involved. In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs tells the story of being fired from Apple in 1985, the company he had founded himself. He explicitly claimed that even if it was awful-tasting medicine, the patient clearly needed it.

We live in a digitalizing world of abundance and traditional approaches such as hierarchies and control are no longer the best strategies. Instead, as leaders we have a responsibility to empower those around us by focusing on outcomes, coaching and mentoring to clarify purpose and to help people grow, develop and maximize the opportunities for self-actualization. Even if it means that we need to go separate ways in the end. The best world we can live in is one where everyone is clear on their purpose and has the opportunity to pursue it. We’re far from that world, but each of us has the moral obligation to do what we can to bring it a little closer.

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Academic, angel investor, board member and advisor working on the boundary of business and (software) technology