I live in corporate America, and empowerment is one of the older, better established buzzwords. This is also yet another word which does not mean what they seem to think it means.
Empowerment in my group means that anyone on my team can decide to stop a major production release from happening, or can decide to violate policy to make a production release succeed. So far, so good.
The part of empowerment that everyone is missing is that it's my fault. When the VP of Distribution shows up in my boss's boss's boss's office railing about why a Tom stopped a necessary release, it's my fault the release was stopped. Tom, who stopped that release for a nitpicky reason is not at fault. I am, and Tom won't ever have to talk to that VP. When one of my command chain wants to know why, during another release, such and such policy was broken and the release took down three critical systems, it's my fault.
(The two levels of management directly above me follow this policy, too. It's a great place to be.)
Empowerment is always empowerment to make mistakes. If you are not empowered to make mistakes, you are not empowered at all. When someone on my team pulls the trigger on a big decision without consulting me, I have 2 choices. I can either correct them on what is an obvious (to me) mistake, or I can pat them on the back for making a gutsy call and help them pick up the pieces. In case you didn't know this, it's the latter every time.
People are scared by nature. Some people you cannot correct even one time without crippling their ability to make an independent decision. If you want to be the kind of leader that needs to be standing over everyone's shoulder every moment, then go right ahead and correct that mistake. I run a 24x7 shop, and I ain't going to be that man.
The people who work with me are smart. I make sure they know their policies and when to break them, and I know they will play the game straight. I know it, because each of them has stepped in a cowpie a time or two, and none of them has ever done it twice.
When something does go pear-shaped, I tell them the same thing a grizzled, old mechanic once told me. He saw my thumb in a shiny, new gauze bandage and said, "I told you if you ever took that thing out of your butt you'd smash it!"
Words to live by.
So, pastors of America, are your people empowered?