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Explicit, Yet Empowering

A Lesson from the Passenger Seat

My daughter Layla has just returned from 6 months in Indonesia and is keen to get her Learner hours up in preparation for her driver’s licence. She had only done about 10 hours prior to being away and even those hours were very spread out. So in essence, she is a beginner again. She’s got a good basic grasp of driving so that is really helpful for her and for my blood pressure!

As we made our way through Melbourne inner streets towards a traffic intersection, Layla said to me, ‘Mum, which way am I going?’. Ooops, I’d forgotten to focus on the level of direction she needed. After her right turn she continued, ‘You know Mum sometimes you’re not being very clear in your directions. I really need you to be clearer.’

Fair enough too. I realised that I was still in the head space of the last never-ending hours in the car with her older brother. As he got to the end of his hours, we would simply agree where the end destination was, and he would direct himself to get there, with minimal input from me. We were explicit about that, and he was empowered to get there with his own plan.

But Layla needed more explicit direction of course. She knew our destination, but was concentrating on the smaller steps of lane changing, speed moderating, awareness of other drivers. She doesn’t need yet the added load of navigating her own way, except for a turn or so ahead. In her words, 'I'm still just trying not to crash! I can't think about where I am going yet!'

Here’s the thing though - when I give her explicit instructions, she feels more empowered, because the level of direction meets her needs. With Conor, her brother, the level of explicit instruction was lower to meet where his capability and confidence was. We'd set the scene at the start as a partnership. ‘Mum, let's head to the beach.’ Or me: ‘Let’s go and see your grandparents’. At the end of his hours he needed be empowered to lead the way, and if he needed guidance - hopefully it was minimal explicit instruction and more about his overarching approach to driving.

Explicit yet empowering is a key leadership attribute. To do that, knowing our people is the secret. Working with them so they can give feedback as to how much guidance they need (‘Mum, I need you to be clearer.’) or how little and for you as leader to provide your insights in terms of their growth and capability. Both of these approaches are empowering.

For those of you who are familiar with the Ferocious Warmth leadership approach, you’ll remember that a big part of our flexibility and adaptability as leaders comes from the ‘Paradox of Yet’ (Chapter Three, Ferocious Warmth, 2021).

In the ‘Paradox of Yet’ we discuss the challenges and limitations of seeing the world in a binary way - an 'either or', rather than ‘and’ or ‘yet’. As we seem to sink further into polarity in our discussions on the way we see the world, the ability of leaders to be able to hold the tension and nuance of the intersection of two seemingly opposed ideas or concepts becomes an even greater imperative.


Too much explicit direction leads to micro-management and disengagement as people see little reason to innovate or initiate. We lose out as ideas and input from others diminishes due to their belief that if it’s not the leaders way, then its not worth raising.

Too much empowerment in the wrong context, without the right supports in place can lead to outcomes and destinations not wanted. Sometimes we want to throw all the shackles off and say ‘just go for it’, but having some frameworks, check ins, and feedback along the way can avoid things going off the rails.

As with all things Ferocious Warmth, context matters.

Who needs more explicit guidance from you right now?

Who needs less?

Who would feel more empowered because you gave them what they needed for success?

Who is itching to step up and be given far more room for innovation and initiative?