Smokey the Bear on Empowering Others

When I see a leader running around frantically trying to solve a problem, I often wonder why they’re alone.  It doesn’t take long to figure out the leader is solo because they haven’t handed over control. Since no one’s been “allowed” to help, the crisis falls on the leader to rectify. If Smokey the Bear had acted that way, we wouldn’t have anymore forests.

Seventy years ago the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council created what has been recognized as one of the most powerful and enduring of all public service advertising – Smokey the Bear. Smokey was designed to preach the importance of preserving our forests.

Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires. Only YOU.

How does a cartoon bear wield so much power and prove to be so effective? It’s in his message. He said “you” prevent fires, not “with your assistance, I will.” Smokey empowered the public to take responsibility. Leaders should do the same.

Research has shown that when leaders help others feel more powerful, they boost productivity and improve performance. One study found that employees were 26% more satisfied with their job, had a higher sense of well-being, and were generally happier when they felt some semblance of control in their work responsibilities.

For those of us who need to empower our teams but are hesitant, here are a few painless ways to start the process:

Simple message. Smokey’s message was straightforward and uncomplicated. With one tagline, everyone knew what he was trying to accomplish. Your message should be just as direct. Avoid the how’s, when’s and why’s; have a one-liner that describes what you expect.

Provide choices. When I was a kid, my mom would give me a choice for dinner, carrots or peas. She was empowering me to make a decision while ensuring that I had a vegetable.  Figure out ways that you can give your staff the opportunity to choose.

Define roles.  Let your team know how empowered they are. Set boundaries, responsibilities, and limits so they know how far they can go before seeking your approval. As you become more comfortable, you can increase their degree of empowerment.

Leaders are trying to avoid workplace fires every day. Unscheduled emergencies, deadlines, employee relation issues eat up our time and prevent us from working on the high impact items. With some empowerment, we can free up time and re-engage our teams by spreading our knowledge and allowing others to take more responsibility. Remember, only YOU can empower your team. Only YOU.