The Paradox of Power: How empowering others increases a leader’s strength

by Ryan B. Jackson

Leadership and power go hand-in-hand. Right? Leaders cast vision, rally buy-in for this vision, before finally using some sort of influence to execute this vision. Therefore, it takes some form of power to effectively orchestrate this complex process and highly sought-after skill.

Yet, power is a polarizing construct due to its varied connotations and historical applications. Too much power to one person and it doesn’t take a history professor to predict the outcome: Hitler, Kim Jong Il, Emperor Nero, Jim Jones (have fun creating your own list). Too little power and simply see any lame duck president over the past 200 years. For the purpose of this blog post we’re going to steer away from conversations of moral compass, moral imperatives and the age-old fascination with good vs. evil. However, the point remains that leadership and power are seemingly synonymous — the more focused question then becomes How should leaders best utilize their power in order to build capacity and maximize output from those they lead, while inevitably trying to realize a pronounced vision?

As one of the foremost current experts on motivation through effective leadership, Daniel Pink explores the relationship between motivation and autonomy (Get motivated here–> I specifically reference Mr. Pink because a particular quote of his has been turning over-and-over in my head for the past two weeks: “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Now, three months ago this quote would have merely stood as inspiration  as I analyzed how to use autonomy to motivate the teachers, students and staff that I serve. But, like iconoclast Bob Dylan forecasted, “For the times they are a changin’.”

Seems now I am more and more fascinated with the empowerment vs. engagement zeitgeist that acts as a hovering hurricane just off the coast of education. Is it still good enough to simply engage students? Would leadership guru Jim Collins respect me if he found out I was doling out autonomy to my staff for the sole purpose of good engagement? For the sake of cynicism, let’s clarify that the argument between engagement and empowerment is more than mere semantics. To engage someone is to emotionally involve them, with a cemented commitment to this involvement. However, to empower someone is to increase their proverbial strength through the process of relinquishing some of your own power.

Herein lies the leadership conundrum: Do leaders want emotionally connected followers who engage in a well-directed task or is leadership something truly greater, an act of empowerment, where followers become leaders themselves strengthened through inspired authority? The latter question directly addresses what I’ve coined the Paradox of Power, which is the head-scratching assertion that leaders actually gain strength by giving it to others. At the admitted risk of cliche, it’s tough not think of empowerment and its incorporation of strength, power, leadership and advancement and not see a military tie-in. Specifically and historically, one analogy stands-out above the rest when viewing empowerment through the lens of military might. Take the Atom bomb, for instance. As a stand alone representation of power the Atom bomb is quite useless, just a bunch of plutonium fission, bolts and alloy. It’s not until the bomb is dropped that the true power of critical mass is realized, resulting in a nuclear chain reaction.

Extend this analogy to a classroom. When a teacher sets out to do more than just engage students, when the instruction now serves as a catalyst of sorts, empowering students to apply this new knowledge in experiential, indelible learning modes, the teacher is now exercising his or her own critical mass, while utilizing a multiplier-effect as students commit to more than just the lesson at hand and instead fuse this learning with personalized approaches to broader understandings.

The tip of the empowerment spear in education is undoubtedly project-based learning (PBL). Here, teachers empower students with the necessary skills before facilitating a grander learning process which sees students researching, designing, creating and presenting their cross-curricular, hands-on projects. Look no further than teachers like Mike Mitchell (@panthersart), whose Mars spacesuit-design PBL marries his students’ love for art and science and garnered the attention and eventual mentorship of Project Runway Season 16 runner-up Amanda Valentine (@avvalentine). Or, Ryan Murphy (@ryanomurphy), whose students’ passion for Shakespeare grew exponentially after the AP Lit students code-switched Shakespeare’s Hamlet, turning the renown masterpiece into a hyperreal urban tragedy feature film titled Hamlet X: A Hip-Hopera. Two examples of teacher-leaders who choose to empower students and saw their return on learning investment skyrocket.

As an assistant principal serving in an urban high school, one in which 90% of our students live at or below the poverty-line, I find empowering teachers more than just a practical tool. In fact, empowerment has become the cornerstone of our new teacher cohort program, where first and second year teachers meet monthly for a variety of reasons none more powerful than the professional development they receive from that month’s veteran teacher who self-selects a strength, designs a unique 30 minute learning experience before finally empowering the cohort with invaluable information. Before you know it, the Paradox of Power has reached a critical mass, symbolized by a chain reaction of teachers leading teachers, those teachers empowering students and students controlling their own learning.

Now ask yourself: As a leader, are you empowering others?

3 thoughts on “The Paradox of Power: How empowering others increases a leader’s strength

  1. Ryan this is great! You have hit on the key. The more we give away the more we get back. I can tell simply by looking at your Twitter Feed and reading your blog that you give much more than you get. I am so glad I am able to learn from you. Your voice and your blog are awesome and inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although I am struggling a bit with all of the war/bomb-related metaphors here, I think your point is sound. We can empower teachers and create a chain reaction that leads to leaders in each of our classrooms. It does not require that a single school leader be a dictator in order to ensure that students succeed. Rather, the places that we see distributed leadership are the ones that we see better outcomes.

    I think you are right to align this to project-based learning, but I would go further to ask the question of “who owns the learning” in the classroom? If it is the children, then the alignment is there and they are the ones leading the classroom. So too, we should ask “who owns the teaching” in the school? If it is the teachers, then we can all move together. If, on the other hand, that the learning is owned by the teacher and the teaching is owned by the school leader (or the district leadership) then we are misaligned and the classrooms and leadership will be ineffective.

    I believe you are advocating for putting the teaching in the hands of teachers and the learning in the hands of students. This is spot on.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here:

    Liked by 1 person

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