The Magic Of Empowerment

The Magic Of Empowerment

Empowerment as action refers to the process of 'selfempowerment' and using resources including intellectual resource from where the scientists, thinkers, authors etc. draw their power in command effectively.


There are some attentiongrabbing definitions and descriptions of ‘Empowerment’ and it is fascinating indeed to reflect on them in the context of ‘Employee Empowerment’.


Empowerment is a set of measures designed to enhance the ‘degree of autonomy’ and also ‘selfdetermination’ in people and in communities. A good example is ‘referendum’ or ‘plebiscite’ - a vote to change the government or the constitution of a country – which speaks about ‘empowerment’ to people.


Empowerment as action refers to the process of ‘self-empowerment’ and using resources including intellectual resource from where the scientists, thinkers, authors etc. draw their power in command effectively.


Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’. If we go a little deeper into this definition, we will find that he talked about the empowerment of people. Further, in the ‘21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership’, John Maxwell portrayed Abraham Lincoln as an American President who lived the ‘Law of Empowerment’. His security enabled him to give his power away without hurting his ego.


Gabeira’s story


In 2009, Maya Gabeira, a Brazilian wave surfer created a sensation across the globe. She surfed the biggest wave ever by a female when she successfully rode a 46 feet wave at Dungeons, a bigwave surf spot in South Africa.


It was reported that in 2013, Gabeira, while surfing a massive wave at Praia do Norte, Nazareé, Portugal, had lost consciousness and almost drowned. She narrowly escaped death as Carlos Burle, her fellow Brazilian big-wave surfer, saved her life. But this hardly deterred her. In January 2018, Gabeira surfed a 68 feet high wave in Nazare, which was recorded as the biggest wave surfed by a female surfer by Guinness World Records. This stands as an outstanding example of self-empowerment!


What does it take to Empower self?


♦ Inspiring goals

♦ Focusing on ongoing training

♦ Strengthening risk-taking capability

♦ Keeping cool

♦ Investing time and energy in building new capacity to see things beyond obvious

♦ Recognising the latent power of ‘Moonshot’ thinking - a type of thinking that aims to achieve something that is generally believed to be impossible.


Now, let us look at what great leaders do through their actions to empower employees in their organisation. The story of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Tylenol crisis (1982) is perhaps the best fit.


The other examples of Empowering self come from the literary world by the authors who unleashed ‘Nostradamus’ (synonymous with predicting the future…have come true) in them. The same has been mentioned below: -


The J & J Tylenol event


The story goes like this. The Chicago Tylenol Murders (capsules filled with cyanide…sabotage) were a series of poisoning deaths resulting from drug tampering in the Chicago metropolitan area in 1982. An immediate action by Johnson & Johnson to reduce the number of deaths and warn the public of poisoning risks have been widely praised as an exemplary public relations response to such a crisis (Wikipedia).


James Burke, the then CEO of J&J, is best known for his decisive, value-based leadership and the exceptional handling of Tylenol crisis (in 1982, Tylenol represented 1/5th of total revenue of J&J). As the Chairman of J&J, James Burke’s action ingrained everlasting corporate values in employees for guiding their future actions and decisions. This stands out as one of the finest examples of ‘Empowering employees’.


Speak the truth


James Burke spoke the truth and did not attempt to shift the blame. He was extremely candid when he addressed the Tylenol crisis. It is interesting to read what Richard Tedlow, a professor from Harvard has mentioned, “Burke, spoke the truth and that was astonishingly liberating for everyone who heard it because we have all become so accustomed to public figures telling less than the truth or lying.”


The company, on the afternoon of the first death due to the consumption of Tylenol, had set up a toll-free number that was handled directly by a company employee, and sent an astounding 450,000 plus telex messages to hospitals, doctors, channel partners, trade groups etc. The New York Times once reported that ‘Tylenol made a hero of Johnson & Johnson: The recall that started them all’. He (Burke) also sent a clear message to employees saying ‘Company should not fiddle while Rome burns.’ Tell the truth, do your duties.


Treat people with great respect


It is interesting to note that within a few months, J&J re-introduced Tylenol to consumers, but in tablet (caplet) form to avoid tampering. The company distributed some 40 million $2.50 coupons to compensate customers who threw away Tylenol after the crisis.


Let us see what James Burke replied in a news conference (1986) when asked by a reporter if he was sorry the company had not acted sooner. He (Burke) replied, “Yes. Indeed I am.” This statement had set an example for the employees of J&J to face the odds with humility - a great source of ‘Empowerment’.


Good behaviour pays long term dividends


Burke was known for his tough decisions and he truly displayed it at the time of the crisis. His executive team thought that the company’s reputation would never recover from the unprecedented Tylenol crisis. The story took a turn. J&J regained 30% market share and once again became the top-selling pain reliever. James Burke, in an unassuming way, taught the employees that nothing good happens without trust. With trust, one can overcome all obstacles.


The J&J story, as described above, is a clear manifestation of leadership behaviour playing a crucial role in shaping and sustaining ‘Employee empowerment’ in the organisation.


Finally, let me share an outline of ‘Employee empowering’ move in two companies where I worked in the past. In both the companies, the senior management.


♦ Took the pain to write a Credo - a statement of the beliefs or aims to guide the company’s actions

♦ Revisit Purpose statement - why we exist?

♦ Re-imagine Core values - what we stand for?

♦ Building Performance culture - setting audacious long-term goals

♦ Digitisation - For transparency, collaboration and democratisation of data

♦ Encourage ‘Interplay of Technology & Empathy’ - support customer centricity

♦ Institutionalise Governance structure - for participative and real time data driven business performance reviews


Both the companies successfully completed the long and arduous journey of business transformation which lasted for 3-5 years and quietly surprised the market! The key to their success was simply ‘Employee empowerment’ - well supported by organisational values and processes & systems. It is one’s honest intent to explore more and have continuous deliberations on ‘Employee empowerment’ for building long-term competitive advantage.




Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras Johnson & Johnson Credo


Praveen Sinha is Ex Head - HR Centre of Excellence, Corporate HR, Escorts Ltd and Co-founder, People n Planet Fora. He comes with an experience of more than 35 years and has worked in Damien Foundation, Belgium, Deepak Fertilizers & Petrochemicals Corporation, Tata Finance, Raymond etc. Praveen has a Post Graduate degree in Personnel Management & Industrial Relations from XISS Ranchi and is a Certified coach-Art & Science of Coaching from Erickson coaching International.


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