Courage under fire empowered leadership in turbulent times

Carole Copeland Thomas, MBA
Principal, C. Thomas & Associates
Boston, Massachusetts
Featured Speaker, 2008 APWA Congress

Editor's Note: Carole Copeland Thomas is one of the Featured Speakers at the 2008 APWA Congress in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her session "Top Trends from the Trenches: Empowered Leadership for Today's APWA Professional" is at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, August 17, and her session "Empowered Leadership through Personal Vision" is at 10:30 a.m. Monday, August 18. For more information on our upcoming Congress, please visit our website at

Get ready to rewrite your owner's manual. The world today is different. Your organization is changing. You must evolve to meet the needs of a changing workforce. If you don't add increments of flexibility to your style, your leadership effectiveness might not hold up to the volatility of today's changing demographics, economics or social trends.

Research from The Creative Group indicates that 33% of executives' time is spent responding to crises or problems. We are all in for a bumpy ride over the coming months. Your skills and capabilities might get tested in new ways as you search for solutions to tough challenges and difficult obstacles. The public works leaders of tomorrow can withstand the turbulence of today by tuning up to new ways to lead, inspire and motivate staff members to expand, excel and interface with each other both on and off the job.

U.S. economic forecast
As a trainer, consultant and speaker specializing in leadership issues, global diversity and empowerment, I carefully monitor the political and economic indicators that forecast our country's short- and long-term future. I travel in and outside of our nation and understand that worldwide changes are affecting large and small organizations throughout this country, including segments within the public works industry. The viability of the U.S. dollar is overshadowed by the strength of the British pound and the Euro. Energy fluctuations have sent gas prices through the roof. The U.S. housing market has homeowners in a tailspin because of failed sub-prime loans, risky speculations and diminished Wall Street investments. Consumer spending has suffered since late 2007, and the "r" word—"recession"—has been on the lips of many for months. Climate changes and the possibility of global warming have extended winters, intensified seasonal storms, and stripped municipal budgets with the unpredictability of our frequent weather changes.

And I don't have to mention the rough and tumble presidential primary race that has us glued to our favorite news channel for the latest political update.

Turbulent times require tough leaders
Yes, we are in turbulent times. However, the well-equipped leader should be prepared to inspire, motivate and lead despite the prognostications. The coming months can provide a new opportunity for you to showcase your enhanced leadership style with new effectiveness, sharpness and skills that can set you apart from all the rest.

Understanding your role as an empowered leader is having the ability to acknowledge the challenges our nation faces while still focusing on the ways that you can help your staff reach their full potential despite the uncertainties of the marketplace. The empowered leader has the finesse to navigate through the undercurrents of office politics, while looking for new ways to support and encourage each staff member. The empowered leader doesn't run and hide from difficult issues, difficult people or difficult circumstances. Rather, the empowered leader has cultivated empathic ears and works toward collaboration and cooperation when circumstances dictate it. The empowered leader knows that some issues are simply out of your control, such as governmental regulations, legislative policies or budget cutbacks you simply can't get around. Sometimes it's staff members who just drive you crazy, or managers or supervisors who have lost touch with reality.

All leaders face issues like this. The question is, are you ready to handle tough times and tough people when they come your way?

Understanding the dynamics of empowered leadership
So, what is empowerment? Empowerment is a fuel. It's a source of energy that pushes you to achieve, confront your problems, overtake your obstacles and focus on your strengths. In my book Personal Empowerment: How To Turbo Charge Your Life Both On and Off Your Job, I state it this way:

"Empowerment is the act of officially giving yourself permission to become the very best you on the planet. It's a process of transformation, allowing you to grow in new directions that will stimulate your intellectual capacity throughout your lifetime. Empowerment allows an individual to move to the next level of life by using skill building techniques, employing appropriate resources, spiritual enlightenment, and creating a commitment to a continuous improvement process."

When you combine empowerment with leadership, the ability to guide or go in advance of others, you create "Empowered Leadership," an amazing combination of substance and vision rolled up in one tightly-knit package. It creates a powerful force that can transform an average manager into the most effective leader in any organization.

Five principles to achieve courage under fire

1. Empowered leaders take calculated risks
Empowered leaders know how to face critical workplace situations, while confronting tough challenges. Example: You stand up to an executive who is dead wrong, and they know it. Solution: You become the leader to take on the challenge and the associated risk by diplomatically and skillfully negotiating a reasonable solution with the influential but flawed leader. Result: Your staff members will praise you for your courage to face the senior manager head-on. The senior manager will respect you for standing up for your principles.

2. Empowered leaders have vision
Empowered leaders understand that a vision statement can be created in a workgroup, department, division or throughout an organization. A vision is a clear mental picture, unusual discernment or foresight. Creating a vision statement can bring clarity through a common perspective to an organizational body, workgroup, division or team. Perhaps there is a need to improve customer service. Create a vision statement like the following:

Anytown USA will strive for customer excellence by embracing new ways to meet the needs of every member of our community with courtesy, professionalism and outstanding service.

Circulating this type of vision statement cannot only improve employee morale, it will signal to the community at large that your division is creating a new customer-centered campaign that is proactive, positive and cooperative.

3. Empowered leaders balance work and family issues
Research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership found that only 24% of respondents polled were working 40 hours or less per week. They reported, "Overall, people who are at higher levels in their organizations work more hours regardless of age cohort than those who are at lower levels in their organization." In other words, some leaders in more senior positions might have a work-family balance problem.

One of the most effective ways to guard against being an overworked, underappreciated boss is to delegate more, train more, use technology more, and set up guidelines on your time at the office. Of course a budget crisis, blizzard, or bridge collapse can turn the best of plans upside down. The question is, how can you set an example for your team by respecting their family parameters while protecting your own?

Do you take care of your physical health? reported that 75% of executives said good physical fitness is critical for career success at the executive level. A fitness regimen coupled with a good nutritional diet will not only ensure a healthier lifestyle, it will probably make you a more productive leader as well.

4. Empowered leaders develop potential in others
Perhaps the chief role of any manager or leader is to identify and develop the potential of your staff. Even the most cantankerous employee has untapped potential. Are there ethnically diverse employees on your staff, who are waiting for your guidance, support and inspiration to help them move to a higher level of your organization? Or maybe there is a new employee who just needs a little boost to shore up his/her confidence before taking on that important new project.

Sometimes employee potential can arise from mentor relationships. The newsletter Grant Thornton View reported that 69% of business leaders said it was important to have a mentor. You can establish mentor programs formally or informally, depending on how your organization is structured.

Identifying and developing employee potential depends in part on how much your employees trust and respect your leadership. Your level of empowerment can have a transforming effect on your staff. The higher your expectations, the more your staff will demand more of themselves and others. By focusing on building the potential in others, you will not only gain their respect, you will cultivate the inner qualities within yourself.

5. Empowered leaders build alliances throughout the organization
In today's changing environment nothing stays the same forever. The friends, colleagues and strategic partners you have today at work can change over time. A new administration, organizational merger or divisional reorganization can shift departments, alter project plans and send some people packing. People retire, move, terminate or leave an organization. Social trends, economic barriers and political mandates can change the face of any organization.

Empowered leaders expect the unexpected. They know when to hold onto relationships, while always keeping a watchful eye out for new opportunities to form alliances with others in different departments or divisions. Empowered leaders are somewhat like "intrepreneurs," those savvy professionals who forge new relationships within an organization. They spread their strategic alliances throughout an agency to safeguard the unlikely possibility that sudden changes may impact their department at any time, on any day.

Empowered leaders are prepared for whatever comes their way. They can face an angry committee in the morning, while helping that hard-working employee find critically important solutions in the afternoon. The empowered leader is always striving for better ways to set higher standards, while never lowering the expectations of the team. It's a cross between being the most enthusiastic cheerleader, intense listener, master teacher and toughest critic, all in one package. It may take years to get there, but through it all, it can transform any manager into a highly-valued, sought-after empowered leader.

Carole Copeland Thomas is a national thought leader, radio talk show host and community builder specializing in leadership, global diversity, multiculturalism and empowerment issues. Her Boston-based firm, C. Thomas & Associates, in partnership with Bentley College, will launch the Multicultural Symposium Series this fall. Carole can be reached at (508) 947-5755, or