The Empowerment Formula

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“Empowerment”.  We’re into it.  And why not?  It’s a good thing.  A condition of being OK is ‘agency’, which means being able to take actions that make a difference.  To have some sort of power.  To be ‘empowered’.

Unfortunately, a decree of “YOU ARE NOW EMPOWERED” combined with matching posters and distribution of keep-cups with catchy slogans is not going to be enough.

Luckily for us, Peter Koestenbaum exists.  He’s a 93 year-old philosopher, still cranking along, and he turned his mind to leadership over the latter period of his life.  His book Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness is seriously deep and awesome, and in it, he gives us the Empowerment Formula.

The Formula

Here’s Peter’s Formula (I change the order of the letters)

Empowerment = Direction x Autonomy x Support

That’s it!

And like any multiplication, if any of these are zero….then empowerment is zero!

So let’s go through it.


Direction means providing clarity.  Think of the basis of any task, whether one hour, or fifty years.  We need to cover:

  • Context it’s in
  • Purpose of doing it
  • Output that needs to be delivered
  • Time it needs to be delivered by.

You could call it ‘what, why and when’ if you want…whatever works.

This links directly to the next one, which is….


Autonomy means providing people with freedom, so they can do it their own way.  You can’t say to be people “be free”, if they don’t have any direction to be free for!  That’s why Empowerment starts with Direction.

Then we need some guardrails.  When my kids were younger, we had two parks in the area.  One had a fence around it, the other didn’t.  Both are great.  Which one did we go to the most?  The one with the fences as it allowed my kids to have freedom without their Dad being close to stop them running onto the road.  Which, of course, gave me freedom too!

Our people are not our kids…but the same principles of humanity apply – if there are limits to the work that are not communicated….freedom will either be too much…or too little.  It’s a necessary condition for Empowerment.


Direction and Autonomy are not enough.  Support is the third leg that holds up the stool.  And this takes on a number of forms, such as

  • Answering questions to confirm or refine the Direction
  • Asking questions that add value to the person doing the work’s decisions.  “What’s the main challenge here for you”, “what other options have you considered”, “what do you need to be able to solve this” are all examples that help people make their own decisions.  This is how we still provide Autonomy while supporting.

And crucially….

  • Providing the Resources and Relationships so the work can get done.  Resources is what you think – money and other stuff.  The Relationships part is where you ensure that those that need to be involved in the work are actually going to be involved in the work.   

This is what we tend to miss the most, instead leaving people with “go and talk to them and see if they can help”.  This is fine…as long as you are happy to change the work if it turns out the others can’t assist.  But to ‘empower’ someone to go and try to negotiate for internal resources when they can’t deliver without them….is setting then up to fail. 

And remember, a zero in any of the empowerment factors means empowerment is…!

Bringing it Home

The Empowerment Formula works.  But don’t waste your time trying to work out which ones of DAS you could improve.   Go and ask your people.  They’re the ones who know. 

That is, if you’re up for finding out.

Now…over to you!

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