Think of empowerment as a horizontal line. On the left hand side is the manager or leader who micromanages - highly disempowering to those they lead. At the extreme right side of the continuum is total empowerment or actually neglect of staff which is equally disempowering.
Leaders on the right end of the continuum often think that they are highly empowering leaders. After all they rarely if ever tell staff what to do. But what they are actually doing is neglecting their staff to the point that staff must figure out what their job and priorities are without any structure, framework or guidance. They also have to solve problems without the help of their leader. This is leadership by benign neglect. More accurately it is a lack of leadership that usually makes for frustrated staff.
Leaders who lead by benign neglect think that they are doing their staff a favor. In reality they are not doing their staff any favors.
Here is why.
First, when there is a leadership vacuum, someone will fill it. If a leader or manager is not leading someone else will exert their influence. That someone else may or may not be a favor to the rest of the team. They are free to control others and drive their agenda, however, because the organizational leader is not providing adequate oversight.
Second, people want and need clarity about their role and what the organization is up to. I have actually had staff who work for benign neglect leaders tell me that they don't know what they are supposed to be doing or what their role is. Staff who must fend for themselves are generally frustrated.
Third, staff often feel as if their manager or leader is not engaged in the team or organization. The truth is they are right! The leader is engaged in his or her personal agenda but not in helping the staff of the organization if they lead by benign neglect. Neglect is of course not leadership but an abdication of leadership.
In my experience this situation occurs for a number of reasons. It may be that the leader has grown an organization by the force of their vision but does not have the skills to be an organizational leader. It may be that the leader is more interested in their own world than providing the leadership that the group needs. Either way, their staff feel disempowered.
If a senior leader is not wired to organize, lead, provide clarity to staff, mentor and coach staff they need to find someone who can and will. This is where a strong COO role is needed but in order to be successful, the senior leaders needs to cede organizational authority to the COO and then stay out of staff and management issues. In the absence of a strong internal leader, benign neglect leaders will eventually stall or plateau their ministry because the larger a ministry the more critical clarity and good organizational structures become.
Back to the empowerment continuum. The place to be is in the middle. Not micromanaging but not neglecting. It is empowerment withing boundaries with clarity and accountability. No favors are done staff with micromanagement an no favors are done with benign neglect. Both disempower rather than empower.