To Grow Leaders, Empower Them

In our book “The Mentor Leader,” Tony Dungy and I walk through seven “E’s” that are implemented by a “mentor leader,” which we define as a leader striving to create leaders and sustainable leadership.

I was approached by an attendee after a recent corporate keynote address I gave who asked the reasonable question of one of the E’s - how exactly they should Empower their employees.

“I’ve had employees complain that I don’t give them enough responsibility. So then I did, but the work was poor. Help!” (Or words to that effect.)

The question has been repeated time after time in different ways, and it’s an important one. Merely “throwing people into the deep end and seeing who swims” might seem like a reasonable strategy to determine current skill(s), but doesn’t suffice to help people grow, and you’ll likely lose some terrific potential leaders. And not providing people with greater responsibilities and spheres of influence isn’t any better. You’ll lose people as they feel stifled and unable to progress.

As leaders we need a culture that allows people to learn and thrive. I suggest three steps to build such a culture - Empowerment Through Knowledge, Empowerment Through Increments, and Empowerment Through Autonomy.

After two years of practicing law in a large firm in North Carolina, I left to join the Jacksonville Jaguars. I was brand new to negotiating player contracts under the National Football League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the National Football League Players’ Association, so within my twelve months on the job, I had the chance to experience all three approaches.

  1. Empowerment Through Knowledge

My first day with the Jags I filled out the requisite HR paperwork, confirmed that my computer worked, and then my boss whisked me off to the Jacksonville International Airport where we picked up the agent for our first round pick. This was June, two months after the NFL Draft, and it was the first substantive conversation between the team and agent about the contract of that first rounder (University of Florida and Jaguar great), Fred Taylor. Over the next two days we met and discussed financial terms, contract length, guaranteed amounts, payment schedules and a variety of other relevant items. A quick exposure to items I knew nothing about - and wasn’t expected to. I listened, watched, and took copious notes (my legal training).

  1. Empowerment Through Increments

By the following year, I’d had a great deal more exposure to the NFL salary cap, Jacksonville’s cap situation and roster and CBA terms. When that year’s Draft rolled around, my boss decided I was ready to handle that year’s first round pick - with help. I made the initial call with the agent, Jimmy Sexton, secured the necessary signatures for the NFL on various documents, and then helped craft our negotiation strategy. My boss and I flew to Birmingham, Alabama to meet with Jimmy in person and negotiated the deal. Well, my boss handled that piece. But he did give me incrementally more than I’d handled with the prior year’s first rounder.

  1. Empowerment Through Autonomy

In that same Draft, my boss assigned me the sixth round pick to handle on my own, even as we were working together on the first-rounder. (First round picks have significantly higher compensation amounts, longer contract lengths and more extensive contract terms. In other words, more places for me to stumble.)

All my boss did on the sixth rounder was to role play the negotiations with me and to be a sounding board for me after negotiating sessions I’d had with the agent. He was available whenever I needed him, but he gave me the autonomy to learn through the process. If I’d completely blown it, the Jaguars worst-case scenario would’ve been a loss of ten or twenty-thousand dollars, or possibly the player refusing to sign and retiring. Both were unlikely and unwelcome, but the stakes were much lower at that level.

A chance to learn and grow, through each of the three steps.

In that instance, my progress through those steps was partially consecutive. That is, I gained knowledge on my first day and beyond, but then steps two and three occurred at the same time about a year later. There is no right way or sequence to empower someone. Particular skills or settings might make them best done in order, while other times empowering someone may mean skipping one or more steps altogether. Like so many other aspects of leadership, the particulars may differ with the person or situation.

But however we do it, we need to be empowering those we lead.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.