In 1970 Jan Wallander became CEO of the Swedish bank Handlesbanken. With his radical management approach, Jan set the bank on a path of virtually uninterrupted growth thereafter, weathering two banking crises with no outside assistance—all with market-leading customer satisfaction.

In 1999, Captain David Marquet took his submarine, the Santa Fe, from the least-performing in the US fleet to the best run in a single year.

In the tens, Julian Wilson and Andrew Holme, co-founders at Matt Black Systems, improved the productivity of their engineering firm by 500% using a straightforward principle.

What do these three organisations have in common? Empowered employees.

At Handlesbanken, more than 70% of employees have loan-making authority.

On David Marquet’s submarine, the only operational decision he reserved for himself was whether or not to fire the nuclear missiles. He empowered his men to make all others.

Matt Black Systems has no central decision-making. There are no central functions. Julian Wilson’s guiding metaphor for management is that of cells cooperating in a living organism. All employees are effectively micro-businesses with full autonomy to engage in any activity they deem personally profitable within the organisation.

Empowerment well planted is a tree yielding many fruits: happier customers, more engaged staff, lower churn, and often dramatically improved business performance.

Given the above, how should we approach empowerment initiatives?

Empowerment threatens the ‘Empowerer’

First the obvious. In typical hierarchical organisations, people in formal authority often justify their position by the number of heads they manage and the volume of decisions they take. They often position themselves as the ‘thinkers’; they deal with the politics of the big decisions, etc. And, of course, their level in the pecking order determines their reward and potential future progression to yet higher remuneration.

Devolving decision-making may undermine the legitimacy of the manager’s role. It may challenge the manager’s identity.

If we attempt an empowerment initiative, bear in mind the likelihood of inducing anxiety in middle managers, the very people you need to help lead the change.

Retain the scaffolding

If companies are to embark on an empowerment initiative, it’s wise not to start with changing structures. Keep everyone’s job titles in place.

The two places to begin are approvals and behaviours.


When removing layers of approval, senior management should provide strong assurances that this will not affect titles or rewards. Further, and this is critical, let the managers decide what approvals to let go of. Let them pick the changes that will make their lives easier – fewer forms to fill in or fewer meetings to attend. Walk the talk of empowerment and let managers determine any changes themselves.


As well as policy change, empowerment requires shifting behaviour. 

When someone commits to doing something of their own volition, they claim their power. Whether they realise it or not, they say to the world and those around them: “I am powerful, and I am going to cause this to happen.” However, personal commitment is rare in most businesses. We might hear: “I’ll take that action,” or “Yep, put me down for that.” But language matters. There is a big difference between “I’ll take that one away” and “I commit to delivering the report by EOP 30 June.”

Secondly, the context of that commitment is essential. Has someone self-generated the commitment, or is the person just nominally committing as an act of compliance?

A common joke in the workplace is “I’ve been volunteered”, or “volun-told”, delivered with a knowing smile. This means you might have an effective delegation culture, but not an empowered culture.

In an empowered culture, people authentically volunteer. Leaders in an empowered culture create a compelling context where people want to volunteer. They share their vision and their own commitment. They create a space where others feel inspired to step forth themselves to help bring the leader’s vision to life. The leader sees everyone else around them as fellow leaders and trusts that their colleagues will ‘fill the void’ to achieve what needs to be done.

Turning the Ship Around 

David Marquet describes empowered environments as ‘leader-leader’ cultures. Here at FirstHuman, we refer to them as Potent Environments.

The crux of David’s approach on the Santa Fe was creating an operating default behaviour that married proactive action with proactive communication. Shipmates shared their intentions with those around them before taking action. A sailor spots a repair that he knows he can do. He doesn’t ask permission to fix it. He declares to those around him: ‘I intend to fix that’, before going ahead with the action. He steps up as a leader, committing to make something happen. He steps into his power.

The Three Facets of Leader-Leader Cultures

Leader-leader cultures focus on clarity – people clearly understand the business’s purpose and mission. They feel confident to autonomously commit to action that will further the organisation’s aims – consulting colleagues where appropriate.

Leader-leader cultures value competence – leaders take a coaching stance to continually develop the people around them, equipping them to take on more and more accountabilities.

Lastly, leader-leader cultures are in continual creative destruction, removing formal approvals and other unnecessary bureaucratic procedures standing in the way of people stepping into their power. Like weeds in a garden, any new unnecessary rules get pruned.

How do I get started?

There are two options depending on your seniority.

At team leader level

If you’re not in a position to start a company-wide change initiative, begin with your own leadership.

After years or even decades in disempowering cultures, people often need to be encouraged to take their power.

In the end, no one can empower another. People empower themselves. However, sometimes a nudge can help.

To address this confidence deficit, become a ‘leader coach’. Begin creating other leaders around you. David Marquet has an elegant model for the leader-coach called the Ladder of Leadership:

The Ladder of Leadership - Coaching Approach

Adapted from David Marquet’s Ladder of Leadership model for Intent-Based Leadership 

The leader-coach steps their ‘coachee’ up the ‘Ladder of Leadership’ as the coachee increasingly steps into their power.

Rung 1 of the ladder represents a commanding, non-empowering leader. They simply tell people what to do.

Rungs 2 to 5 represent the leader-coach asking a series of questions designed to support the coachee getting to a place where they feel able to declare their intention of how they’ll move forward faced with their current opportunity or challenge. Rung 4 is critical as it ensures that the coachee chooses the next best action for themselves. Rung 5 is the colleague being a fellow leader.

Rungs 6 & 7 are for scenarios where little coordination is required: think, artist in garrets.

Rung 5 – intent-based leadership – represents the sweet spot between autonomy and coordination in most corporate settings.

You can begin your journey as a leader-coach by experimenting with questions like those above. Challenge yourself to hold back on delegating or making decisions for people.

Empowerment evangelist and CEO of The Happy Company, Henry Stewart, takes regular ‘decision holidays’ for months at a time.

Taking this stance might be a case of ‘going slow to go quick’ initially. However, as the people that you coach become increasingly self-managing, your life as a leader will get easier whilst your team’s performance will soar.

At the organisational level

If you’re in a position to work on the system as a whole, begin by holding open sessions with managers where you invite them to suggest approval mechanisms that can be removed and where staff can be allowed to make their decisions. Expenses, holidays, training, IT requests are often good places to begin.

Simultaneously, work on equipping your managers to become ‘leader-coaches’.

By working both on structures and leadership behaviours symultaneoulsy, you can expect to see rapid change towards an potent, empowered workplace and the benefits that brings.

Contact us today for more on creating an empowered culture in your organisation.