The Power of Empowerment

Recently, Fortune listed the 50 top leaders in the world. The list included country sovereigns, priests, former presidents, philanthropists, and Nobel Prize winners. People like Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Ford CEO Alan Mulally, Warren Buffett, and America’s 42nd President Bill Clinton made the list.

One interesting figure to also make the Fortune 50 was Gregg Popovich, NBA head coach of the 2014 NBA World Champion San Antonio Spurs. After reviewing his record, it is no secret why he made the top 50 list. Popovich is one of the NBA’s historically best coaches.

After 18 seasons, Popovich has won five NBA Championship titles and he has only missed the playoffs once. He is one of only five NBA head coaches in the history of Basketball to have won five or more titles, the other four: Phil Jackson (11), Red Auerbach (9), Pat Riley and John Kundla (both have won 5). To learn from Gregg Popovich would be to increase leadership capacity.

One characteristic of Popovich’s success—empowerment—he does not micro-manage his players but develops them throughout the season so they can perform on their own within his system. In effect, Popovich has created a symbiotic scheme where both coach and player own the game. Jake Turtel of Fortune writes, “But the bottom line is he’s a quiet leader who believes in letting his players play—and not just his superstars. Popovich downright nurtures his bench, which this year had the fourth highest scoring average of all time.” Every player on the team has a role and believes they can impact the team towards victory.

One of Popovich’s empowerment teaching methods is to let his players solve specific problems. In an interview with Jeff McDonald of Spurs Nation, Popovich gives those interested in leadership studies insight into how he empowers his players and can help those in leadership empower those they lead. McDonald transcribes:

 A lot depends on the competitiveness and the character of the player. Often times, I’ll appeal to that. Like, I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on the court.
“I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can actually be in charge. I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do.  It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people …

“Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.’ And I’ll get up and walk away.  Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them. . . .  But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.”

The concept of empowerment is nothing new to business. Ken Blanchard, John Carlos, and Alan Randolph write in Three Keys to Empowerment, “In empowerment, . . . the structure is intended to inform team members about the ranges they can act with autonomy. Employees to be empowered must know what their specific responsibilities, authority, decision-making powers are to operate within the new boundaries to be created.”[1]

Jesus uses this technique to train his disciples. Take for example Luke 9:1-10a where Jesus sends them out two-by-two. This would be the third tour of Galilee for some of the twelve and second for all. Jesus releases them without his presence to proclaim the Gospel and heal sickness (Luke 9:6). When they return, their first duty is to report back (Luke 9:10).

Jesus knows he will return to heaven and is busy preparing his disciples to continue his work once he returns. In order for the disciples to accomplish this task, Jesus must release them on their own without the master’s help. Nearly two thousand years later, Christians number over two billion in the world’s population. One technique Jesus employed was to release his disciples to do the work they had watched him perform.

Empowerment is crucial for the success of an institution, organization, or movement. People need to believe they own part of what is being accomplished.  Biblically, empowerment:

1. Prevents burnout. In Exodus 18:13-27 Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is on a visit and sees Moses doing everything in regards to judging people’s affairs. Jethro’s words:

What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly   wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. . . . Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you (Exodus 18:17-18, 21-22).

Moses listens to his father-in-law and saves himself a lot of work being enabled to focus on other things in leading Israel through the wilderness.

2. Prepares people to continue long after the one who started leaves. As was mentioned above, the disciples spread the message of Jesus, which is recorded in the book of Acts. Nearly 2000 years later, over 2 billion people follow Jesus. Empowered people will be able to continue the work long after the leader has departed.

3. Makes people feel better about themselves. Luke records another time where the disciples went out without Jesus in Luke 10 only this time; the total that went out was 70/72. Upon their return, they reported back to Jesus with JOY (Luke 10:17)! People who are able to function freely within set parameters are more likely to experience satisfaction than those who are not given much freedom.

Empowerment is a skill that has been used by leaders past and present. From running a corporation, establishing a movement, or winning an NBA championship, helping others feel they own the work instead of just being called upon to execute plans from above goes a long way to accomplishing goals and fulfilling a mission.

Michael Chung currently teaches Bible and Theology at Houston Christian University. He can be reached at


[1] Ken Blanchard, John Carlos, and Alan Randolph, The Three Keys
to Empowerment (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1999): 11.