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Purpose is not only a tool for leaders to make hard decisions. More importantly, it empowers middle management and all frontline employees to innovate. As we know, far too many good ideas are not implemented because managers feel powerless. Meanwhile, many leaders don’t know how big the lack of empowerment problem is.

In previous posts, we’ve discussed the four factors that lead to successful idea generation and implementation. We explored sensitivity to the market as a powerful tool for improving profits. We argued that dissatisfaction with the status quo drives innovation in two ways – by helping to find new ways to do things, spurring creativity, and by providing the will to persevere.

Now let’s think for a moment about shared purpose, and how leadership often consists of driving diverse people toward a common goal.

Oticon, a Danish hearing aid technology company, was a world leader in behind-the-ear hearing aids in the 1970s. But by the 1980s its market share began to decline as people moved toward “in –the-ear” models. Oticon’s response was a radical new organizational model with no formal hierarchical reporting relationships. Former CEO Lars Kolind got his inspiration from a deep involvement in the scouting movement.

“The scouting movement has a strong volunteer aspect, and whenever scouts come together, they cooperate effectively together through common goals,” Kolind said. “My experiences in scouting led me to focus on defining a clear ‘meaning’ for Oticon employees, something beyond just making money, and to build a system that encouraged volunteerism and self-motivation.

“I had a vision that we would work according to a common goal, and we would empower the staff to the maximum level.”

Oticon was reorganized from a conventional hierarchy to a collection of projects. Anyone could propose a project. Interestingly, each team member was empowered to embark upon a project without top management approval. The only condition: One had to persuade someone else to join it.

CEO Kolind wanted to extend this freedom to all employees because he recognized that Oticon’s employees shared a strong purpose to improve the lives of the hard of hearing. By deploying a natural competition – what some might call a Darwinian model – Oticon prospered and flourished even in the most adverse conditions. The mission of improving lives translated into shared goals, and therefore a clear understanding about what was and was not acceptable. Empowerment became a safe choice for each employee.

“The role of leaders is not to get other people to follow them but to empower others to lead.” – Bill George

 With leadership comes immense responsibility. It’s an amazing opportunity to help others learn and grow, accept full responsibility and be recognized for achieving goals. That’s why it’s imperative to lead authentically by focusing on empowering others.

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