I never read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (I bought the discounted version: Four Habits of Semi-Effective People). People I respect have good things to say about Covey. While I can no more remember all seven habits than all seven dwarves, all fourteen (habits and dwarves) seemed both useful and unthreatening when I first encountered them.

Covey has another book, Principle Centered Leadership. I don’t go in much for this kind of book, because its central thesis – that adherence to ethical principles is a prerequisite to leadership – seems more the stuff of pamphlets than of treatises. Still, I have no argument with Covey, who promotes old-fashioned virtues in eloquent fashion. Virtues are Good Things (to use the technical term).

I do, however, take issue with the people who heard about Covey and, harking back to Jordy LaForge, thought, “Being ethical can advance my career? You know, it’s crazy enough, it just might work!”

Here’s an opinion: It’s not ethics until it hurts. If you’re not taking a personal risk, not sticking your neck out, then you’re not sticking to your principles. You’re just enjoying a string of good luck.

The sorriest facet of this whole phenomenon is how it turned ethics and principles into management fads. Empowerment, which certainly has an ethical dimension, became a fad as well. The experts told us all to empower employees because of how much more profitable it would make our businesses. Regrettably, accounting systems have no way to determine whether empowerment creates profitability, so the fad has started to wane.

Here’s a different perspective: you have no choice but to empower your employees. They already have the power to wreck your organization, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.

Employees can respond to requests for help with indifference, inflexibly quote policy in response to service problems, produce the minimum defined in your performance standards, and live down to your carefully crafted job descriptions. So long as they do their jobs as you’ve defined them your employees are safe, until the whole ship of your organization sinks to the bottom.

None of the tools available to managers can stop this kind of empowerment – not procedure manuals, job descriptions, performance reviews, or disciplinary processes. The more you try to keep employees from messing up, the more you make their failure inevitable, until the whole situation becomes completely ridiculous.

Don’t believe me? Look at the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) and Federal Acquisition Requirement Specifications (FARS). These two sets of documents detail how the government must buy information technology. FIPS and FARS try to make the process idiot-proof. Great theory. The paradox? FIPS and FARS are so detailed and elaborate that to learn them you have to be smart enough to not need them in the first place.

Empowerment is a good-news-bad-news proposition. The bad news: You have no choice about empowering your employees. You can’t prevent their wrecking your things. The good news: you can successfully structure your work environment so employees help your organization thrive.

The better news: it’s a whole lot simpler this way. Specifying goals and principles is much easier than dictating behavior. With few exceptions, employees want to succeed. If you’d only tell them what that means … how you define success … they’ll help you get there. They may not do things the way you’d do them, but that’s okay. Different golf pros have different swings, but they all hit the ball very well (and much better than I do).

Far too often, empowerment became a numbers game. Cost-justified by decreasing the manager/worker ratio, empowerment programs reduced interaction between managers and staff. Mistake. The point is to change how they interact, not to reduce the amount of contact.

At its simplest and most profound level, empowerment is about a change in perspective. Managers who don’t believe in empowering their workforce try to keep employees from failing.

Empowering managers help their employees succeed.