Empowering others to unleash their leadership potential with Evan Marie Allison Pieknik

by | Apr 19, 2022 | Self-Leadership, Strategies and Tips

As a leader, how do you help others realize their capability and power and do so in a way that continues in your absence?

Evan Marie Allison Pieknik, associate director of flagship programs and DEI initiatives with the Sanger Leadership Center at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, frequently reflects on this question and how her presence as a leader can impact others even in her absence. Allison Pieknik draws leadership insights from the book “Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You,” written by leadership scholars Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. 

In “Unleashed,” Frei and Morriss define leadership as the ability to empower and unleash the capabilities of others. It’s about helping others “fully realize their potential and power” to ensure that the impact leaders want to make continues in their absence.

“As leaders, we can empower others by distributing power and inviting colleagues in on shaping organizational culture and strategic direction while creating an environment where it’s okay to fail. We can unlock the capabilities of others by providing opportunities to learn and grow,” Allison Pieknik said. 

For Allison Pieknik, applying empowerment principles helped her grow as a leader, and she has seen it help others succeed. When it comes to putting theory to practice, Allison Pieknik has found these three practical tips from “Unleashed” to be especially helpful in exercising empowerment: 

  • Letting Go

A point from “Unleashed” Allison Pieknik finds helpful is that an individual leader is not going to have all of the answers. Influential leaders must let go and distribute power by inviting others to help build workplace culture and shape the strategic direction. 

“Sometimes, as leaders, we feel pressured to think that we have to have all the answers and make the final call.” Allison Pieknik said. “We have to let go of that mindset. Instead, we have to distribute power in the decision-making process. The most effective leaders surround themselves with folks who have different perspectives on an issue and bring them to the table to discuss.”

By leveraging diversity of thought, leaders can empower others to develop as independent problem solvers, Allison Pieknik said. 

“Believing in someone also means giving them space to stumble and learn along the way,” Allison Pieknik said. “Creating an environment where it is okay to fail is key to surviving long term. We’ve often heard fail fast and fail forward. Leaders can role model this by sharing their missteps and providing space for others to do the same. We may have the desire to protect our direct reports from failure, but we need to let go of this desire because it is at the expense of learning and growth for those around us.”

  • Building Trust

Trust is the foundation for empowerment to occur.

“Trust is supported by a three-legged stool,” Allison Pieknik said. “The first is authenticity; allowing others to experience your authentic self. The second is logic; others see you as exercising sound judgment. The third is empathy; others know you truly care about them and support their success. All three are vital to building a strong foundation of trust.”

Allison Pieknik’s three-legged stool analogy considers a concept she learned in “Unleashed,” called the trust anchor. Trust takes time to build; when leaders fail to gain traction, it’s often due to one of the three legs of the trust stool being wobbly. Every person tends to have one leg less sturdy than the others, and in low trust situations, it’s the wobbly leg that can lead to trouble.

Luckily, leaders also tend to have one leg that they can reliably lean on when things get shaky. Frei and Morriss call this the trust anchor. As leaders seek to build trust to empower others fully, it is crucial to identify which leg—authenticity, logic, or empathy—has a wobble and which portion is the anchor. 

“With that self-awareness, we can ask ourselves, ‘what actions can we take to leverage our trust anchors while stabilizing our trust wobbles?’” Allison Pieknik poses.  

  • Balancing Standards & Support 

The last point from “Unleashed” that intrigued Allison Pieknik is that leaders are most effective at empowering others when they can hold them accountable to high standards while also being deeply devoted to supporting their success. Striking the right balance between the two is critical. 

If leaders set increasingly high expectations without clearly demonstrating that they are supportive, they can come off as abrasive, and job performance may suffer. Equally as ineffective is the leader who is unconditionally devoted to their team but fails to set clear high standards. 

“When we strike the right balance between high standards and deep devotion, we enable others to see new possibilities and provide them with the encouragement they need to take risks, grow, and reach new heights.” Allison Pieknik said. 

To do this, Frei and Morriss recommend “treat[ing] someone like their better, future self.” Rather than waiting for someone to evolve in their role, begin engaging with them as if they already have. Provide them with stretch assignments and offer feedback that you know the better self they are working towards could manage. Help them see that accessing that future self is possible now.

For Allison Pieknik, being an impactful leader is a constant journey towards bettering herself and others. Her insights from “Unleashed” have helped balance her three-legged stool. She regularly takes moments to reflect strategically on how she empowers others pubically and one-on-one.

For more insight on how you might begin intentionally designing your leadership practice, review the Sanger Leadership Journey. You’ll find a path that will help you understand your strengths, goals, and skills while also supporting you in designing opportunities to behave with purpose while leading others.

Evan Marie Allison Pieknik

Three-legged stool of trust