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Power and Empowerment – Looking at Conscious Leadership


The technology of the connected world causes business people to deal with everyday interactions differently from twenty-five years ago.  In this podcast Eric Kaufmann talks about a new approach to running our businesses in the future.  Eric provides a 21st century look at power and empowerment in the workplace and explores how we can become a conscious leader in the decades to come.

Host – Steven Maggi: Everybody talks about power and empowerment and what that really means. It scares some people. It’s an important part of managing. Really, in the 21st century, the whole idea of this has changed and we have the perfect person to talk with on that. Eric Kaufmann, the president of Sagatica – a great company – and really an interesting guy that has thought this stuff through and in fact, he’s got a book coming out that you’re gonna want to get later this year called Leadership Breakdown – how to break the vicious cycle, release the struggle, and succeed with conscious leadership. And conscious leadership is what we’re gonna talk about a lot today, and particularly in regard to power and empowerment. So, first of all, Eric, great to have you on! In your introduction, you kind of talk about what brought this to you and why you had to think differently about these subjects in the 21st century and it was a response to your daughters coming to you and saying, “Hey, we’re not comfortable. You might be confident in what’s ahead. We don’t see it.”

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, thank you for mentioning my daughters. It was kind of a wake-up call, a revelation of sort to have my daughters at the time – they’re now 21 and 19, so this was a couple years ago – and they were lamenting about the kind of shitty conditions that they’re experiencing in life – not just Covid-related, but sort of looking at the economy, looking at global tensions, looking at geopolitical issues – and looking at how the future, as far as they’re concerned, is terrifying. My youngest daughter as a matter of fact said, “You know, I don’t want to have children. I don’t want to bring children into this kind of a world.”

Steven: It’s an eye-opener, right? I mean, it really is.

Eric: Yeah, it’s a great eye-opener and I thought that there was something sort of particular to my kids, but I’ve talked with parents of actual sort of teenage and young adults for the last couple of years and that sentiment is really well distributed. There’s a lot of young people that are sort of pessimistic about being able to raise children in the near future, and that’s a disturbing social reality.

Steven: Absolutely and what I found fascinating about it is that as I read through it, my first thought was “Okay, well they’re coming from a particular political standpoint.” Then, as I read the way you approach power and leadership, it doesn’t really matter which side of the political persuasion you’re on. You’re gonna have to deal with this in either way in a whole new approach, because these types of issues and the way we look at problems. And I guess this goes back to the Industrial Revolution right now, right, because it is the way we established things for the last hundred years. But now, technology and the way we look at the world and the interconnection globally, you can’t do it that way anymore.

Eric: You can’t. I mean, that’s spot on. You can’t do it this way anymore. The evidence is pretty clear. The labor market is reeling. It’s a total employees’ market and employers are having a hard time finding people to fill positions. There’s this thing called the “Great Resignation,” as people have been dropping out of the workforce. Some of it’s Covid-related, some of it’s not, but the reality is that we cannot run businesses the way we have for 200-and-some-odd years, right? This is not just some kind of an “Oh!” and kind of a liberal soapbox you’re standing on. It’s a fact of every business and it’s not just in America. I just came back from a week-and-a-half in Europe, and they’re dealing with exactly the same stuff. This is a matter of the world has changed. Society has changed. The economy has changed. The Internet has changed everything. Why do we think that business can run the same way it has when everything else has changed around it?

Steven: Well, let’s start at the very beginning then. What does empowerment actually mean? People hear those terms “power” and “empowerment.” If you could kind of define that and then talk a little about where this is changing now in exact response to what you’ve been talking about here, the changes of the way our whole economy worldwide has changed.

Eric: So, power and empowerment have changed in principle – principle is the practical and social change in terms of how we think about it, right? There was a time where you just did what you were told. Do what you’re told, right? This was true for raising children, right? I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that people said children should be seen but not heard? Right?

Steven: Right, right.

Eric: We’re not talking about thousands of years ago. We’re talking about 50 years ago maybe – 40 years ago. We were told what to do and that was at home, that was at work, that was by the government, that was by the religious authorities, and so power was very orchestrated and organized and in the hands of those in authority. Even the notion of empowerment is fairly new, because for hundreds of years – arguably thousands of years – the seat of power lay in those who are defined as the authoritative leaders. As the world has shifted in technology and communication and social changes, as people have become more accustomed to democracy, as the Industrial Revolution created the middle class, which is something that didn’t exist 200 years ago – there was no middle class. There was the Royals and there were the laborers and there were peasants, but there was no middle class. We have middle class, we have democracy, we have an amazing availability of resource information. We have a massively more educated society than we’ve ever had. The notion that power can so obviously rest in the hands of the few is no longer real, let alone desirable. And so, empowerment fundamentally is our ability to make our own choices. Empowerment really is our ability to affect outcomes and to have influence over our lives. That’s something that has changed in our personal lives, in our social lives and certainly in the workplace.

Steven: We’re talking about defining roles too, and I read your stuff and I saw like within an hour – I think of Downton Abbey and that was a perfect example of what it used to be, where there was this royal family. They were born into it. They run everything and it kind of works okay because everybody understands their role. Well, now those roles are suddenly changed and that’s where that power comes in, right? You don’t have the same roles and certainly you are not born into this power anymore, at least not the way it was back then.

Eric: I love that you bring up the royal family, right? There’s all of a sudden a royal family hoopla in the news, right? I mean, think about it, there was an actual law – I kid you not, I’m not making this up – way back in the Middle Ages that on the wedding night of any couple in the country, the king could select to spend the night consorting with the new bride. Okay, that was a pretty messed up law, but that was a thing. Kings could have whoever they wanted because well, they were the king. Now, we have Prince Andrew who got stripped of his military medals and is getting in all kinds of trouble because he was implicated in sexual misconduct with the whole Epstein affair. Even the Royal Family of England is not immune from the changes in society, right? You can’t just have carte blanche power and do whatever the hell you want. There is a sense of accountability and there’s a sense of a wish for justice where power can no longer just be wielded single-handedly to someone’s great benefit. It’s just fascinating that you mentioned the royal family, right? It’s a very real in-the-moment example of the shift and what we experience as power. We are all of us human beings at this point attempting to find our personal power, our inner power, our capacity to be in charge of our lives, and it’s a time where the conditions around us are really quite complex. So, we have great complexity and this awakening of power and empowerment, and it makes for a very juicy period of life.

Steven: And everybody’s trying to claim power. I thought, when you were talking about the old Mel Brooks’ thing of “it’s good to be the king.” Well, it’s still good to be the king, but now all of a sudden there’s groups – and you talk a little about the “Me Too” movement,  BLM, and literally across the board, where does that come in in terms of – does ability become a bigger player now in the role for power than it used to be before or is there still this battle going on for where you were and what college you went to and all that sort of thing?

Eric: Oh wow, that’s a really interesting question. So, you’re asking whether – have we arrived at a point where society is really a meritocracy, right? Where you can get rewarded based on what you do and what you know and what you’re able to accomplish, as opposed to a pedigree or where you come from or your network. I don’t think it’s to the point where it’s just about ability. I think that privilege and network and pedigree and heritage still have a real role to play in terms of people’s access to power. By that I mean, we have to define power here in two ways: one is the personal power, the inner power, my ability to choose my own path in life and to make distinctions and choices in my life. And then, there’s power in authority. So, there is the authority that comes, and those are not exactly the same because I’m interested in talking more about inner power, our personal power, our capacity to be empowered in our own right. And then there is a conversation to be had about authority, but I think that we have not arrived at a time in society where meritocracy or just pure ability determines the degree to which we get paid or recognized or voted into office. I think the network – not the background, but the network – the network of people, I mean it’s a huge source of power, so both are going on right now. There is more opportunity for individuals to be empowered, and the system – sort of the pre-existing context – is still remarkably determining who gets to have authority.

Steven: However you got there, leadership has changed, and you talk about taking on the mantle of stewardship. I find that fascinating, because we grew up in an era where business was supposed to go out and make a profit and try to dominate an industry and that was it. Now, you’re saying that’s changed. You also have to take on some responsibility, which really to the culture as a whole, where did that come in? And you say that this will actually be a good thing, this is actually a way where the leadership, where it looks like in a way, they’re concerned about things they shouldn’t be; in reality, it’s exactly the opposite. They’ll actually have more power if they can do this properly.

Eric: Yeah Steven, I think that you’ve nailed one of the most critical elements of this whole process, which is that the – you know, historically – and we’re talking about – let’s go back 150-200 years and beyond – so let’s go 8,000 years all the way back to 200 years ago. So, that whole period of time of thousands of years, the people who got to decide what happens to other people, to society, to the culture were either the chief or the king or the queen or the priest. That’s how it went on for thousands of years, and then to the point you made earlier around the Industrial Revolution, we start having this emergence of a new class of leaders as the emergence of industry and business has grown and capitalism has really evolved. We suddenly have these business leaders that have sway over their society because they have money, they have contacts, they can make things happen, they can actually – like the Rothschild Bank financed the wars in Europe, so they could actually determine not only political, but military affairs. So, they grew in power and now what we have is that the trust in government has waned, the expectation from our religious leaders has declined, and what we have on a global level is that the leaders of business are the ones who are the de facto shapers of human experience and human society.

I will give you a really simple example. There was a spate of school shootings and gun violence in the US – well, there still is – but, you know there was a real spate of gun violence especially for school shootings and folks in the US were up in arms, going “we need to do something about it” and I don’t know if you remember – this was maybe a year-and-a-half or two years ago – the government did exactly nothing. All governments did exactly nothing. But you know who mobilized and took action? Wal-Mart, DICK’S Sporting Goods, Delta Airlines, businesses – meaning executives and business boards – they’re the ones who stepped up and said, “You know, this gun violence is untenable. We cannot have this in our society,” and they began to make changes through their business to the access to guns and the acceptance of funding the gun lobbies and so forth. So, it’s a fascinating moment where we can see that even in something as divisive as gun rights and gun ownership, the government is paralyzed, but private industry businesses – which is to say leaders – are making choices. This is true for every one of the social conditions that we’re facing, right, whether it’s homelessness or poverty or reproductive rights. We’re seeing that it’s executives and their teams that are actually deciding what to fund and what to support and how to affect people’s opinions.

So, we’ve moved significantly to a time where business – and then who’s to say it was business, right? Business is a construct, there are businesspeople – there are executives, there are leaders – where leaders through their businesses are shaping and forming our society and our climate, the actual physical planet. So, this is a time unlike ever before in history where unelected – these are not sort of politically elected nor are they sort of ordained by God through the church; these are ordinary citizens that have reached some power by their leadership – are now literally in charge of human society.

Steven: You’re saying, we’ve seen a shift in moral authority, which – and who would’ve thought that it would be going to the board rooms and that kind of thing of these corporations. You mentioned before “unelected.” Is the thought that if they did something that was particularly repugnant to a large group of people, then the argument back instead of votes might be just not using that particular company’s products and so forth and forcing a change in whoever leads in that industry?

Eric: That’s a really astute point, right, because we’ve seen as a corrective force that there are boycotts, right? The market as it were – what’s the market? The market is a collective of people who have purchasing power. So, you and I with our dollars and with our attention have a way of affecting these leaders. So, there is a – it’s not a perfect mechanism, but there is a bit of a feedback group. But yes, you have unelected officials – they’re not officials – you have unelected power brokers that are shaping society and – and this is what I believe to be very critical – it’s important that they recognize that they have become the stewards of society. So, Tim Cook and Mr. Zuckerberg and these leaders of big companies, they don’t get to say, “Well, I’m just running a business” because they’re not just running a business. Apple is determining cultural norms. Facebook is the gatekeeper for information and shaping how the world experiences self, how we experience one another and the decisions that we make. So, I don’t think they can anymore be sort of free to just say, “I’m just running a business.” They are not just the shapers of society, they are stewards. They are the ones who particularly will have the responsibility to care for, and I don’t think it’s enough to just have sort of a corporate social responsibility plan, right? “Oh, we’re gonna donate this amount of money to this kind of good cause.” I think this needs to run deep into their consciousness. This needs to be a felt level, real-time shift in our corporate leaders to help them fully recognize this moment and to get them to buy into the inevitability of their responsibility.

Steven: So, what do you think about Elon Musk then? Because there is a really interesting guy who kind of plays by his own rules. By that, I mean you never quite know where he’s gonna go. It’s interesting, but you see the power he has. I mean, he can move the stock market by just a tweak, which is fascinating to me. How do you see that as power and do you see more Elon Musks humming around or do you think it will become more – for lack of a better phrase – bureaucratic, where you kinda have to run these ideas down a little, you know what I’m saying?

Eric: I think that we’re definitely stepping into a time where we’ll see more of these titans of industry that are shaping – I mean, you’re right, right? He puts out a tweet about this or that and the market moves, right? He just got contracted by NASA to build the next space station, right? So, we have private industry now building the International – what’s called the International Space Station. It is gonna come crashing down to earth on purpose in 2030. They’re building a new one that’s being built by Tesla and some other companies banding together, and the government is gonna rent back from private industry the new International Space Station.

Are we gonna see more of them? Yes, we’re gonna see more of them. Yeah, because we’ve moved into a time in history where we are really a society driven by and powered by and ruled by industry and business. And so, I don’t know that we can just have a bureaucracy to fight them. I think this is a losing proposition that we’ve been dealing with for a long time, right? So, there is no sort of pure capitalism as the capitalism was intended like in the mid-1700s, because ideally, capitalism wouldn’t have any regulations, right? It would just govern itself by virtue of the market, but that’s proven to be ridiculous. There’s been regulations all throughout, so there’s this cat-and-mouse game between regulators on the one hand and businesses on the other, and if we’re gonna continue that form of bureaucracy, we’re screwed, because it hasn’t proved to be effective. What we need is an awakening and a participation among these leaders, and it doesn’t just have to be Elon Musk, right? It can be John Smith listening to this program or Jane Doe listening to your program, but they can wake up and recognize their power, their personal power, as well as positional power and make some choices about how their business is not only being wildly successful – which I wish every business could be wildly successful – but also meaningfully responsible.

Steven: But Eric, this is exactly why what you’re doing I think is so important and we need more people doing it. As people that participate in this – and we all participate – we need to understand this, because the worst thing that can happen is well, they know what they’re doing, and you leave them alone. We have to understand it so we can participate and so forth. And if the rules have changed even how you get power, you better know how to do that and you better know what the reasoning is and so forth, and really understand the philosophy of this before you try to play in this game.

Eric: Yeah, and to your point, I want to have you and me, my daughters, every one of my employees, all of your employees, anybody who’s listening to this – I want all of us as human beings to be able to wake up to our individual power, our inner power, our personal power. Because I don’t think it’s gonna be enough to try and either legislate and regulate companies into taking responsibility, nor is it gonna be enough to have all of these business leaders awakened to the inevitability of their responsibility. The third leg of this and you know it ought to be clear, right? Yes, let’s have some collective legislation. Yes, and equally importantly, let’s have an awakening of responsibility on behalf of those people who are the commercial-type use or just commercial leaders. Thirdly, let’s do what we can as quickly as we can as much as we can to help every human being awaken to our own personal power, to our own capacity to choose, not to live from fear and not to live from a place of subservience, but to arise to be able to live in my/your/our sense of personal authority.

Steven: Well, one thing I want to cover before we go, because I think it’s really important – and you talk about something that at first, it seems to be an oxymoron, and then the more you think of it, the more it does make sense – you can actually gain power when you take yourself less seriously. That’s a matter of not becoming all self-involved, because if you’re all self-involved, this doesn’t work.

Eric: Amen, brother. I write in my book – and I talk about this with my clients and audiences – that the number one barrier to our power is this thing that I’ve come to call “ego myopia.” Ego myopia is the inability to see and manage our own ego. What happens when we’re stuck in our ego myopic ways is that we are governed by two urges that the ego has: one urge is to be safe, and the other is to be special. So, we spend our lives bumping from activity to activity, from person to person, from project to project, trying to be safe on the one hand – you know, don’t hurt me, don’t screw me, don’t make this difficult for me, I want to be safe – to on the other hand, I want to be special – notice me, see how great I am, see how wonderful I am. So, this massive amount of energy that gets distributed and then wasted as we’re trying to be safe on the one hand and special on the other, and what we end up doing is we end up taking ourselves very seriously. This is a serious business of being safe and a serious business of being special. So, we become increasingly more self-centered and, in the self-centeredness, we don’t actually gain power, we are wasting our power. We’re wasting our power because we want to – what’s one way to be safe, right? One way to be safe is to people-please. If I get people around me to like me, then they will include me, and they won’t hurt me. Boom! I’m just wasting my power because I’m giving it to other people. What’s another way to be safe? I can blame other people for what happened, because if I blame then I’m not gonna be accountable. If I’m not accountable then nobody’s gonna punish me and then I’m gonna be safe, right? Every time I blame, boom, I’m wasting my power. What’s the way to be special? The way to be special is to stand up in the meeting and take credit for everything my team did, because if I take credit for what my team did, I’ll be considered brilliant and special and remarkable and valuable. Boom! I’m wasting all this energy because I have to suck up the energy in the room.

My proposal is that if we don’t take ourselves so seriously and recognize our power – not that we’re small, but we are already powerful – and we do the opposite of trying to be special, but we make other people around us be special, especially as a leader. If you as a leader spend the time making it less about yourself and more about other people around you, by definition you are amplifying their capacity, their success – and as you amplify them, they amplify you, you become more what? Sought after, trusted, desirable. People become more engaging and that is why you are inherently more powerful. You can get more done. So, yes, there’s a direct correlation between reducing my need to be so frickin’ special and take myself so seriously doing something to continue to empower and enliven other people and by result, I become more powerful.

Steven: So, that’s really a different way to look at leadership. A lot of people think that – like you say, “Hey, I need a tremendous amount of self-confidence to be able to do this because people will see it and they’ll follow,” but then I think of a guy who just passed away, the great John Madden. I kind of know him a little bit. His thing was kind of like “let everybody do their thing.” Consequently, if his big thing was “Hey, you pay attention in meetings and when I ask you to play on Sunday, you play like hell, you know, you play as hard as you can.” That worked! He was consequently able to bring in people that didn’t make sense at the time as a team and make them play together as a team. Is that kind of the type of thing you’re looking at? And I think really, it’s a confidence in yourself that, “Hey, I can pass some of this power to other people and it’s gonna actually work to everybody’s better good.”

Eric: Exactly. I mean, you’re saying it beautifully, right? And he was a beautiful example of this exact practice, which is to say he didn’t have to be the one who’s taking himself so seriously. He had to take the process seriously. And to take the process seriously means that he attended to the people, noticed their particular genius, ability, contribution and unleashed them to be the best version of themselves that they could be and lo and behold, he looked like a freaking genius.

Steven: Yeah, exactly!

Eric: Yeah, let’s do more of that!

Steven: Do you think – and this is kind of the final question on that – but as people that deal with it, not the people on the top but the people down in the bottom areas – do you think that once you’re comfortable about like somebody – we used him as an example – but somebody in that thing where they’re not taking themselves that seriously, where it’s not a matter of just imposing your will, but rather kind of bringing parts together – does that ultimately give those people more power to help him do more or her do more in that leadership position?

Eric: Absolutely. I mean, because what happens is when he does that or she does that, right – the people who band together and give themselves to you, right, they contribute, they engage – this great quest of the 21st century business to have engaged employees, right? What is an engaged employee? An engaged employee is somebody who is committed to their role and shows up in such a way as to advance the mission in the best way that they can. If I as a leader am creating an environment where people feel safe on the one hand, and more importantly, they are empowered – in other words, I am not holding them back from shining their particular skills and talents, but I encourage that. I amplify that. If I do that for the people on my team, they are engaged with me, engaged in their work and they will amplify my effort. At the end of the day, I’m going to win because they win. Not because it’s like morally right or because God says so, because it’s just the mathematics of human interaction. If I help you have a better experience, you want to help me back, because reciprocity is baked into our genetic code and so the more I will bring opportunities to the people around me to shine, the more they will return the favor and help me shine as well.

Steven: Eric Kaufmann, you call yourself an executive mentor and sage, and I have to say, I totally agree with that. If you’ve got a company out there and you want to bring in somebody, boy, I can’t recommend Eric enough. Eric, how do we get a hold of you and how do we find out more about all these things you’re thinking about every day?

Eric: My website is my company name: Sagatica.com. I think if you Google or if you go to EricKaufmann.com, you will arrive at the same place. I am on LinkedIn where I share little wisdoms and tidbits about executive leadership 3-4 days a week, and I have a YouTube channel called “Sagatica Wisdom” and I have some videos on there that I share as well, so – or info@sagatica.com if you want to email me directly.

Steven: I think it’s well worth the time. If nothing else, you have to go to his website and look up the little part where they go “if you want an expanded version of my background, click there.” It is great. It is a different way to look at somebody you’re thinking about doing business with, well worth the time. Eric, thanks a lot. I hope to have you on again.

Eric: Thank you, Steven. I really appreciate your time and attention.