Five Leadership Behaviors that Create Independent and Empowered Employees

Can you imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, more proactive, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance? 

These easy-to-list, challenging-to-achieve attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and benefit any organization in multiple ways. They’re also required if your aspirations include elevating your leadership to scale your firm. 

Yet, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team by telling them what to do! When that’s the case, you’re running an organization with “one brain and a thousand hands.” Although it can feel pretty good for a while––and things certainly get done––your team’s reliance on you grows while their capacity to perform independently doesn’t. Meanwhile, you cannot sustainably scale without engaging, growing, and empowering your staff.

Whether you realize it or not, you (the leader) are either contributing to your team’s dependence and disempowerment or causing it directly! 

However, you are also the solution.

Decades of research consistently identify three factors that correlate to employee engagement, which sets the stage for empowerment and independence. They are:

Autonomy – Self-directedness and latitude regarding how to get work done.

Mastery – Ability to learn and gain expertise.

Purpose – Feeling part of something larger than one’s self.

Today we’ll discuss five leadership behaviors that create autonomy, mastery, and purpose for you to learn and internalize to create an independent and empowered team.

Fair warning: Initially, it will take more time to empower your employees than it does to tell them what to do! Resist the urge to give instructions. Your investment now will be returned handsomely when you lead more strategically and have a more capable, reliable, scalable team.

1. Create Clarity

The primary role of a leader is to point to what matters most. To do that, you must create clarity starting with your organization’s purpose, core values, and strategy. There are two key questions to consider here:

  1. How clear are you with these elements, and how frequently do you convey them to your employees? 
  2. How well do your employees understand them and how clearly do they connect to their daily work? 

Assuming you’ve answered the first with clarity, to answer the second question, consider my “tap on the shoulder test:” if I picked 15 percent of your employees at random, tapped them on the shoulder, and asked them to tell me about the company’s purpose, core values, and strategy, how accurate and aligned would their answers be? If you realize there’s a gap here, don’t be discouraged. It’s a massive opportunity to benefit from creating additional clarity!

“The primary role of a leader is to point to what matters most.”

The next mechanism to create clarity is to name specific, tactical priorities. My coaching rule of thumb for clients is a maximum of three priorities for the firm at both annual and quarterly intervals. Without clarity here, your team lacks critical guidance regarding how you expect them to make decisions and allocate their time. Further, when everything is important, nothing is important—and people (including both middle and senior managers) are much more likely to need to be told what to do next. 

The final element to create clarity for your team: Establish role outcomes and accountability. This is a crystal-clear definition of the top three outcomes that you expect from each role in your firm. This process will likely require thinking in terms of “widgets,” not only dollars, for numerous roles. While businesses commonly measure success in terms of dollars––profit, revenue, etc.––they are not an appropriate outcome for every role. A widget, on the other hand, refers to a unit of output. For example, you may identify the number of qualified leads as one of the outcomes for which your director of marketing is accountable. Role accountability helps people understand your expectations as a leader and how you intend to measure their value to the organization in a tangible way.

2. Over-Communicate

Social projection is a psychological process through which we expect others’ beliefs to be the same as our own. This causes leaders to falsely assume (and believe) that their people have the same information they do. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! 

Let’s say you’ve established clarity when it comes to purpose, core values, strategy, priorities, and role accountability. Certainly a fantastic start, but how do you share and repeat that information? And what about your firm’s metrics or scoreboards to share progress? Who sees those, how frequently, and how well is the information understood?

The solution here is to establish communication rhythms—daily huddles, weekly meetings, and monthly “all hands” sessions to improve collaboration and remind your team what matters most. Use these sessions to create a constant pulse of information through the business, just as your body relies on your veins and arteries to provide a life-giving flow of blood to your cells. What’s on your mind, should be on their minds, and communication rhythms make it so. For more on communication rhythms and other skills and tools to help you scale, check out my upcoming live class.

Here’s an example highlighting how simple and effective the right rhythms can be: My former client David is the CEO of a virtual coaching firm that helps people comply with their medications and achieve certain health goals. David’s employees are located throughout the United States, making his communication challenges substantially more difficult than those of a leader with their team members under one roof. To better communicate with his staff, I suggested that he produce a ninety-second audio clip each week, in which he would discuss any significant events, updates, or hot topics that fit with the mission of his organization and that happened to be on his mind as CEO. I added that he could also use these recordings to single out employees or accomplishments that merit recognition throughout the company. The process would cost him approximately five minutes of his time per week and a total of zero dollars. David agreed to try it. 

After distributing his first recording, David received overwhelmingly positive feedback from multiple employees. They indicated that hearing from him made them feel truly connected to the company despite their disparate locations. And now, the business is more aligned than ever.

“What’s on your mind, should be on their minds.
Communication rhythms make it so.”

How do you know if you’re doing your part to communicate? I use the “eye-roll” standard to help my coaching clients. If your employees aren’t rolling their eyes knowingly and finishing your sentences, you’ve not communicated to them enough!

3. Raise Your Expectations

Studies show that you get what you expect, both from yourself and from others. If you want your staff to perform to a higher standard, begin by increasing your expectations of them. 

About ten years ago, I briefly coached the executive team of a New York City-based multi-unit fast food restaurant. It was obvious to me from the start that the business’s leaders had disdain for the hourly staff in their restaurants. They didn’t trust them and treated them more like cogs in a system or a nondescript group of “them” than like the intelligent, hardworking people they were. 

Whenever something went wrong, it confirmed the leaders’ beliefs about in-store staff, corresponding to their low expectations. In turn, the low expectations created a massive disproportionate focus on problems and low performers, rather than instances of high performance. As a result, the business never achieved stability with in-store operations––and the hard-working, well-intentioned location managers felt the most pain of everyone involved. Each restaurant experienced high turnover and struggled with employees who arrived late and didn’t care much about their jobs or the company at large. Indeed, the leaders of this firm got exactly what they expected!

Now let’s consider one of my current clients: Boris is the CEO of Mott Corporation, a Connecticut-based manufacturing company that specializes in filtration and flow control. Boris has exceptionally high expectations of himself and his team. He never hesitates to challenge himself and those around him by raising the bar. As a result, his leadership team—and the company as a whole––have generated stellar results. In 2020, when many suffered at the hands of a very tough market, Boris and his organization experienced a record year. Today, they have an ambitious, well-conceived strategic plan and Boris’s high expectations continue to pull everyone forward.

“If you want your staff to perform to a higher standard,
begin by increasing your expectations of them.”

As you reflect on your own expectations, consider that they should encompass both the hard- and soft-edges of leadership. Soft-edge leadership elements include your firm’s human, cohesive, and cultural systems, for example, how you hire, fire, grow, care for, and promote people. Trust, collaboration, and accountability are also part of the soft edge. On the other hand, the hard-edge refers to the operation of your business and includes strategy, execution, and cash. You must cultivate high expectations of yourself and your team in both areas. 

To ensure your own leadership is on track, you must also ask: Who has expectations of me as a leader? And are they high enough? If your leader’s (or board of directors’) expectations aren’t as high as they should be, you may want to encourage them to raise the bar, which will help you grow. If that’s not an option, think about others who can hold you to high expectations and encourage you to level-up.

4. Coach for Growth

Most leaders coach for results, which is good. Few coach for growth, which is optimal. 

Let’s say you’re a sales manager coaching a salesperson on your team. You probably focus on how to overcome a particular objection, how to close a piece of business, or perhaps the next three steps in a big negotiation. Covering those topics is considered coaching. And in a way, it is. But in reality, when you provide those answers, the salesperson begins relying on you to tell them what to do. 

As a leader, you likely feel good about this because when they do what you suggest, and ultimately win business, it reinforces your actions. You feel like your coaching is working, and they feel great too. Plus, it’s often easy and comfortable, as there’s nothing threatening about giving someone instructions.

Here’s the problem: While you may be achieving some results, you’re not growing that person’s capacity to be more independent and accomplish things on their own. Rather, you’re creating dependence, and as we established, that’s not scalable. 

Coaching for growth requires a different approach. It’s about pointing out the things someone needs to learn so they can figure out how to accomplish something independently going forward. Here’s what this sounds like: “I noticed that every time you reach a certain point in a negotiation, you come to me with the same question. Why do you think that is?” 

Rather than telling them what to do and sending them on their way, you question a pattern you’ve observed in their behavior preventing them from being more effective in their role. Although this results in learning and independence over time, many leaders balk at the prospect of speaking so candidly to their employees, and then revert to coaching for results.

“When you care deeply and tell the brutal truth,
you’ll challenge your people in a way that
accelerates their growth and capacity.”

Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, makes the correct and compelling case that we need to be candid in our business relationships. To do that, we must care deeply and tell the brutal truth. You cannot have one without the other. Think about it: if you don’t care deeply about someone but tell them brutal truth, you’re a jerk. If you care so deeply that you cannot tell them something they really need to hear, you’re a wimp. Finding the balance between both makes for an effective and meaningful relationship. It’s also a requirement to coach for growth. 

When you care deeply and tell the brutal truth, you’ll challenge your people in a way that accelerates their growth and capacity. They’ll be able to do more, think at a higher level, and become more independent in their work.

Yet another benefit of coaching for growth? It distinguishes true A-players form everyone else. A-players love this process! They lean into it. Meanwhile, B players tolerate it, and C-players hate it. Coaching for growth makes them uncomfortable, and they’ll often tell you. Pay close attention to this, as it could signal it’s time to find someone else for the role.

Coaching for growth is required to scale. If you don’t build your team’s capacity, you’ll forever be the brain behind everyone else’s actions—an exhausting and low probability strategy to move your organization forward.

5. Walk Your Own Talk 

Although the previous four leadership behaviors are important, your integrity as a leader––the example you set with your own behavior––is by far the most critical. 

Whether you realize it or not, as a leader all eyes are on you, all the time. What you say. What you do. What you tolerate. How you make decisions. What (and who) you prioritize. What you reward. What you punish. And more! Everyone is watching everything you say and do. 

Consider for a moment whether you are walking your own talk as a leader. For example, are you: 

  • Living your own values? 
  • Honoring your own priorities? 
  • Accountable for your own decisions and outcomes? 
  • Balancing the hard- and soft-edges of leadership? 
  • Being coached for growth yourself? 

Before you answer these definitively, I challenge you to solicit outside opinions first by asking a few employees for honest feedback. 

“Whether you realize it or not, as a leader
all eyes are on you, all the time.”

If one of your aspirations is to scale your leadership and your organization, then a key behavior to model is delegating decisions and outcomes to others, as opposed to holding onto them yourself. Here’s an easy way to get started: Use the WDYR, or “what do you recommend?” method. Whenever an employee asks you a question about what to do next, instead of answering them, respond: “What do you recommend?” 

Expecting recommendations from your staff rather than questions is a bar-raising behavior! Do this consistently and within two weeks, people will begin coming to you with recommendations in lieu of questions. It works like magic, and it’s a great way to empower your team and foster independence. 

The truth is that, unless you get this fifth leadership behavior right, you’re going to have a hard time gaining the returns provided by the other four. Think about that, along with who you can enlist to help you (and your leadership team) walk your own talk. 


You cannot rightly expect a return unless you are first willing to make an investment. This is true for just about everything in life, leadership included. To create sustainable scale––the return––you must grow, challenge, and engage your team by increasing autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

The five leadership behaviors we’ve outlined here represent the investments necessary to make that happen. 

Start by soliciting feedback from your team and from impartial outsiders on whom you can depend, like forum mates or a qualified coach. Ask them about whether you walk your talk––and start with your own integrity––before moving on to the other behaviors.

Remember: You are both the problem and the solution to creating a more independent and empowered team!


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