Good Work: Enabling Others to Act

There is something remarkable about unlocking your own door in the morning, to be able to say “This is my shop,’ ‘my business,’ ‘my project,’  ‘my classroom,’ ‘my fire house,’ or ‘my office.”  Ownership creates anxious moments and nervous nights, but it unleashes pride and boundless energy.  I first experienced this rush when I was a lawn sprinkler repairman and I got my own repair truck and crew.  That same sense of exhilaration returned on my first job out of college as a project manager when I got my own construction trailer and a project of my own.  When I started a consulting firm we rented a fancy office to show everyone that we were for real.  We could not afford the rent, but it was still a thrill to unlock my own door in the morning.

Most teachers develop a strong sense of ownership for their classroom.  A few days before school starts they add lively decorations and learning aids.  Any by the time open house rolls around, most classrooms are filled with student work creating the same sense of pride in every student.  Teachers that are forced to travel around from classroom to classroom often complain that, in addition to being a real headache, that they cannot personalize their learning environment.  In other words, they want a place where they can develop a sense of ownership.
When I was superintendent, our custodian was a first generation Cambodian immigrant.  He greeted everyone in the morning like guests to his home.  He painted the hand railing and pressured washed the brick stairs because he thought they looked dirty. He did things that no one asks him to just because he treated the place like his own.
Ownership can be more than a place; it can be a set of important ideas.  When the heat is on, leaders stand up and tell it like it is even when it is not popular.  As superintendent, that meant that our Facilities Director had as much ownership of the strategic plan as I did, and that he was expected to “own it in a crowd.”  That is why he would not have said, “I’m just the facilities guy.”  He defined and defended district decisions as his own – because they were.  He stood up for what we believed and decided because he owned it.
Kouzes and Posner call ‘Enabling Others to Act’ one of the The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®:

Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.

Enabling others is one reason I’m a fan of performance contracting as a governance model.  The ‘who makes what decision’ stuff in education is usually so cloudy that writing it down provides real clarity and autonomy with boundaries.
Give the folks you work with ownership by involving them in decision making, delegating authority as well as responsibility, and backing them up when they fail.  They will work harder, stay longer, and make it better.  Enable others to do good work.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Ed Jones

Tom, Amen. I would add "trust your customers".
I sit on a board with two guys who don't.
We oversee (among other things) the only public walking trail in the county.
Recently, I had the trail extended into an old pine-tree farm. The going there is a little rugged, but of course it has nothing on the risks you western hikers take each time you venture out. Our land is flat, hosts no vipers, just needs a whiff of sense by users.
Still, despite my printing and placing large "CAUTION: This area of park filled with 1'-3' pits from former tree farm" signs, the board president walked into one such hole. Thus assured that other 65 year olds would be equally clumsy , he put up his own signs:
"Area Closed"
Obesity here is a real health problem. So are under-used joints and muscles. That should be our primary focus but it's not.
These guys don't trust and empower their customers. Do your readers?

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