Small Wars Journal

A Strategic Imperative: Empowerment

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 3:09pm

A Strategic Imperative: Empowerment

Donald C. Bolduc



The purpose of this article is to describe the importance of empowering subordinates.  It was my experience as a senior leader in the military, that success in an organization is dependent on empowerment of subordinates.  The more you invest in your people the more effective you were as a leader.  Unfortunately, I also observed that empowerment of subordinates is not followed consistently in military organizations.  The mistake leaders make is that they talk about empowerment, but then attach a bunch of restrictions rendering it ineffective. 


Empowerment is a concept I did not start getting right until I was a battalion commander.  As a brigade-level commander and general officer-level commander, I became very comfortable with total empowerment as I learned how it unleashed the power of my subordinates to use their creativity, imagination, and initiative.  Empowerment is the corner stone of executing mission command properly.  Mission command is a leadership style that is endorsed by senior leaders, but poorly executed in the military.  A leading advocate and expert on mission command is Donald Vandergriff and he notes, “in the chaos and uncertainty of modern war, our troops must be empowered to make decisions, take the initiative, and lead boldly. This is Mission Command: a command culture, leadership style, and operating concept that has been embraced by armed forces the world over. While the U.S. Military and many of our allies have formally adopted Mission Command, much work remains to truly understand and implement this style of leadership.”


My experience was that senior leaders in the military perceived there was too much risk in empowerment of subordinates, and empowerment became espoused by the leader and not enacted.  Empowerment always came with caveats that undermined execution.  The most common phrase from senior leaders is “I want you to think outside box - but stay in your lane.”  I found this contradictory and confusing.  In addition, as soon as a subordinate used their initiative, creativity, and imagination, and the senior leader had to answer questions, the “butt chewing’s” started and the empowerment ended.  This caused – and is still causing - real problems between leaders and subordinates in the military with establishing and maintaining buy-in of strategy and operational approach, building trust, achieving organizational effectiveness and organizational commitment.  While discussion of empowerment has been prevalent in popular literature for many years, this concept remains problematic in execution.  Given that empowerment is espoused but not enacted consistently in the military and civilian business environment, it is clear that leaders and managers do not fully understand the possible benefits for organizational success (Elnaga, 2014).  The Army will need to change their promotion systems, talent management process, and leadership education focus to fully realize the benefit of empowerment of subordinates.  This is an area the military and the business world are going to have to start getting right.


Empowerment is mainly concerned with establishing and building trust between management and employees to motivate them to participate in achieving the objectives, goals, and success of the organization (Elnaga, 2014).  Empowerment is one of the modern concepts which is believed to improve the human element in the modern organizations to achieve high levels of cooperation, team spirit, self-confidence, innovation, independent thinking and entrepreneurship (Elnaga, 2014).  Building organizational commitment among employees is one of the important factors for ensuring organizational success (Hanaysha, 2016).  The effect of teamwork on organizational commitment has also been found to be positive and confirmed that empowerment of subordinates increased organizational success (Hanaysha, 2016).

Empowerment results in subordinates buying into the strategy, having mutual trust, and a strong organizational commitment.  They are emotionally attached to the organization and have a strong desire to contribute significantly towards organizational success (Sahoo, 2011).  This leads to increased competitiveness, accountability, risk taking, high innovativeness, low wastage, and the desire to improve overall job performance (Sahoo, 2011).  Moreover, increased individual commitment to work groups or teams improves team performance, interpersonal interaction, and enhances individual performance and degree of satisfaction.  Empowerment, thus, inspires change and increases the level of workplace commitment, which increases the degree of individual subordinate commitment (Sahoo, 2011).  This has a positive effect on climate and culture which according to a recent article, Army Talent Management Reform: The Culture Problem, by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras noted on the culture problem in the Army, yet regrettably for the Army, the biggest obstacle to reform is the service’s culture. Army culture consists of unspoken norms and beliefs that discreetly drive behavior and quietly influence decision-making. Of course, culture by itself is not inherently good or bad. What matters is how the culture aligns with the task at hand. Unfortunately, unless the Army’s culture is openly examined, discussed, and addressed, it has the potential to subtly undermine any talent reform efforts” (Wong, Gerras, 2019).

Subordinate empowerment becomes more important in organizations with decentralized missions, distributed forces, and consistent turnovers of leaders and managers.  It is a leader’s responsibility to motivate and engage their subordinates in their work.  Leaders can accomplish this through empowering their employees (Banutu-Gomez, Ba, 2015).  In many cases it is the subordinates that are the continuity in an organization.  For this reason, factoring them out of the process makes zero sense.  In view of a rapidly changing environment, organizations must devote greater effort to the work force involvement to ensure long-term organizational success.  Many of the service members, I talk with, are concerned about the lack of trust, lack of empowerment, confusing guidance, favoritism, substandard counseling, and lack of accountability of senior leaders.  These concerns are problematic to an organization by themselves and something that empowerment will solve.

Establishing and Building Trust


“Almost everywhere we turn, trust is on the decline”.  This comment by Covey is as true today as it was in 2008.  Trust in our culture at large, in our institutions, and in our companies is significantly lower than a generation ago (Covey, 2008). Consider the loss of trust and confidence in political leaders and business leaders today.  Intelligent conservatism is leadership that has succeeded in promoting the idea of leaders and managers listening to their people and relying on old-fashioned intuition and expertise (Covey, 2008). Trust is an “evolving thing that ebbs and flows,” says David DeStano, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of The Truth About Trust (Carolyn O'Hara, 2014).  In their monograph, Lying to Ourselves, Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras note, “untruthfulness is surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.”  This untruthfulness is taking a toll on the Army culture.  The negative impact to the Army is on trust, commitment, and buy in to strategy, and achieving operational effectiveness.  Subordinates are more likely to follow through on goals set by a leader and manager they trust and to be more forthcoming about the challenges they see on their level.  “Managers will never learn the truth about a company unless they have the employees’ trust,” explains Jim Dougherty, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and veteran software CEO (Carolyn O'Hara, 2014).  That is why it is so critical for leaders and managers to constantly reinforce their trustworthiness.  Listening is a way to gain trust.  Listening takes time, but it ensures that the organization not only gets on board with the strategy, but also by engaging everyone in the process (commitment) (Covey, 2008).  This produces solid results in the long-term and leads to less reckless strategic shifts (organizational effectiveness) (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 359-362).


The first job of any leader is to inspire trust.  Trust consists of two components: character and competence.  Character includes your moral courage, motive, and intent when dealing with people (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 359-362).  Competence includes your capabilities, skills, and results (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 359-362).  Th e effective leader and manager instills confidence in the employees because of their established competence and character, making it easier for the manager to form responsive networks and to find out what is going on throughout the organization without micromanaging (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 361).  Leaders and managers operate on authority and relationships are dictated by organizational charts.    Authority based on trust refers to the quality of relationships with other leaders and managers and with those whom they have regular contact.  Managers with relationships based on trust, work with people in a more open and honest way.  These managers have no ulterior motives or hidden agendas, and employees, other managers, and executives know where they stand.  Moreover, trust promotes organizational effectiveness and subordinate commitment (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 285).  Leaders and managers will not be effective if they do not build productive relationships on trust.

Strategy and Organizational Effectiveness

Strategic Management consists of the analysis, decisions, and actions an organization undertakes in order to create and sustain competitive advantages (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 296-297).  The definition captures two main elements that go to the heart of strategic management (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 296-297).  The first element is the three ongoing processes of analysis, decisions, and actions (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 296-297).  The second, is the essence of strategic management, which is why some organizations outperform others (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 296-297).  A sustainable competitive advantage cannot be achieved through operational effectiveness alone, so, strategy and operational effectiveness must be combined to translate those gains into mission success and sustainable progress and profitability (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 296-297). Too often in today’s organizations, leaders and managers mistake operational effectiveness with strategy.  Both are important and help drive superior performance (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 296-297).  Given the many challenges and opportunities in the environment, today’s leaders and managers must do more than set long-term strategies and hope for the best.  The strategic management of an organization must become both a process and a way of thinking throughout the organization (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 297-298).  Strategy and operational effectiveness must be combined to attain best practices to create a unique value position to make better strategic choices (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 298-302).

To be effective in strategic management and fully leverage operational effectiveness, organizational objectives and goals must be directed to the total organization (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 298-302).  This is where empowerment becomes critical to military strategic leaders.  To fully leverage the strategic management concept of effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility, empowerment becomes critical to the successful practice of strategic management (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 298-302).  Strategic management requires managers to take an integrative view and ensure all functional areas and activities fit together to help the organization achieve its objectives and goals.  Empowerment will mobilize people and other assets throughout the organization to increase ideas, creativity, imagination, initiative, and speed of action (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 298-302).  In a recent article, Major General Robert Scales notes, that “the flurry of self-congratulatory prose emerging from multi-domain warfare literature today obscures the fact that a slogan such as “multi-domain” is not doctrine, and doctrine rooted in the fundamental tenets of warfare is a prerequisite for meaningful reform.”  In addition, Major General Scales, notes, The Dynamics of Doctrine,” the Germans sought to restore maneuver to the battlefield by working from the bottom up rather than the top down. They believed that the surest sources of wisdom were sergeants and lieutenants who could see the problem from the viewpoint of a trench step.”  This is true for strategy development as well, but we often leave them out of the development process only to execute a strategy that does not fit the operational environment.  I was recently talking with Soldiers about the United States Army Special Operations Force guidance to the Combined Training Center for ARSOF, recently issued by the United States Special Operations Command was confusing, unclear, and did not take into account the bottom up input to ensure practical application of the guidance.  The slide below is compilation of things I have seen work for leaders in making organizations effective.



Organizational Commitment

Research has shown that subordinate involvement in the missions and visions of an organization remain at the center of designing a successful strategy (Banutu-Gomez, Ba, 2015).  Business leaders have led through the centuries by understanding employee psychology, employee emotions, and employee expectations, and by taking care of employee needs in a manner that resulted in a win-win situation for both employer and employee (Slack, Orife, Anderson, 2010).  This guaranteed organizational commitment of the employee and in turn helped the organization realize its goals (Sahoo, 2011).  The term organizational commitment has become so much a part of management today, that it is used every day without clearly visualizing what it takes to accomplish it (Sahoo, 2011).  Failure to understand the nature of organizational commitment leads to a lack of understanding of subordinate attachment to the organization and in turn leads to deficient management strategies that fail to reach goals (Sahoo, 2011). 


Commitment in the military is key to successful strategy implementation.  I am not talking about commitment to values, I am talking about organizational commitment by subordinates on what leaders want to do.  Leadership and management play a central role to ensure that the organization is committed to excellence (Sahoo, 2011).  Subordinate commitment to objectives and goals increases the competitive-advantage and the long-term success of the business (Sahoo, 2011).  A subordinate with greater organizational commitment has a greater chance of contributing to organizational success and will also experience higher levels of job satisfaction (Sahoo, 2011).  Moreover, high levels of job satisfaction, in turn, reduces employee turnover and increases the organization’s ability to recruit and retain talent (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 300-302). 


Empowerment through established organizational procedures is an important part of gaining subordinate commitment to organizational objectives and goals.  Ultimately, this supports leaders and managers in getting things done effectively through others (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, p.p. 283-284).  Individuals with low levels of commitment will do their job and beyond that, only enough to get by.  They do not put their hearts into the work and mission of the organization.  They seem to be more concerned with personal success than with the success of the organization (Peace Irefin, Mohammed Ali Mechanic, 2014).  People who are less committed are also more likely to look at themselves as outsiders and not as long-term members of the organization.  US Special Operations is experiencing this disconnect as they have created a “Game of Thrones” approach to how they deal with their people.  By contrast, subordinates that see themselves as an integral part of the organization possess high commitment to the direction leaders are taking the organization.  Anything that threatens the organization is an imminent danger to them as well (Peace Irefin, Mohammed Ali Mechanic, 2014).  Such employees become creatively involved in the organizations mission and values, and constantly think about ways to do their jobs better (Peace Irefin, Mohammed Ali Mechanic, 2014).  Committed employees work for the organization as if the organization belongs to them.  (Peace Irefin, Mohammed Ali Mechanic, 2014) The slide below contains suggestions to facilitate empowerment and gain organizational commitment.






This article described the importance of empowerment through building trust, understanding strategy and organizational effectiveness, and establishing organizational commitment.  Strategy and organizational effectiveness, building trust, and creating organizational commitment subordinates are the most important factors in establishing empowerment.  Leaders and managers that build trust, support strategy and organizational effectiveness, and organizational commitment through empowerment will improve organizational success (Hanaysha, 2016).  Empowerment has a significant positive effect on organizational success.  The effect of empowerment positively affected teamwork and confidence in leadership and management.  Furthermore, this paper supports research suggestions for the establishment and continued education and training for strategic leaders and managers, to improve their understanding of the science and art of how to establish effective leadership within their organizations.


Based on the review of literature, it is observed that empowerment is a significant strategic leader and manager organizational imperative.  Empowerment is not universally supported by leaders.  Most leaders are not comfortable with empowerment due to being risk averse, a micromanager, lack of confidence, and fear of failure.  Additionally, the effect of empowerment positively affects a subordinate’s team performance and confidence in their leadership.  Most importantly, these findings support the continued leadership education, organizational development, and training of leaders and managers at all levels of the organization.    


The leadership education and talent management of senior leaders is going to have to change if we are going to make progress in empowerment to improve trust, strategy and organizational effectiveness, and organization commitment.  Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras noted in their article, “Any major talent management initiatives will likely be confronted by skepticism — a facet of Army culture that is especially influential when personnel issues are concerned. Despite the pure intentions of both civilian and uniformed senior leader reformers, there will be a lingering fear among the formations that, to paraphrase management theorists Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, the talent management theory espoused will not match the actual theory-in-use. The force has been jaded by past assurances that command of a training unit is on par with commanding a tactical unit or that a tour as a Military Transition Team advisor is career-enhancing. Until promotion board results match the outcomes promised by talent management advocates, skepticism will rule the ranks.”




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About the Author(s)

Brigadier General Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.  He is a self-described leader who admits his mistakes, learned from his many mistakes, and keeps the faith with the people, family, and organizations he serves.