Freedom is one of the most misunderstood concepts in our current day and age. Apparent freedom and true freedom are very different things. And for anyone to get the most out of their life, or for a leader to get the most from their team, it’s crucial to understand the difference.
My own journey
Many years ago I suffered with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This illness lasted for 2 years, and there was not a moment in that seemingly never-ending time where I felt normal. Constantly tired, constantly struggling, I resigned myself to the notion that I had lost my quality of life for good.
But then one day I made the decision to try everything I possibly could to pull out of this illness. I took a month off work, and spent the first two weeks in bed. I then started setting small goals, aiming to walk for 5 minutes one day, then 10 the next. I poured myself into learning about good nutrition, to fuel my body with healthy food that gave it the best chance of recovery. I acted hour by hour, day by day, with the disciplines that stood the greatest chance of giving me my life back.
Nothing changed overnight, but gradually my health started to improve. I cannot pinpoint a particular day when my health was restored, but after 6 months I was pretty much back to normal. I had my life back! I got a second chance!
From that point forward I committed myself to really looking after my body. I appreciated life and health like never before. I became very disciplined in eating well and exercising, and I was so grateful for the opportunity to be active. This focus on health really grew my fitness, and in the years ahead I had the physical fitness to be able to do amazing things I could only have dreamed of in the middle of my illness.
I still remember crossing the finish line of my first marathon. Such an exhilarating experience, one that is impossible to fabricate without actually going through it.
At the heart of my gratitude was that I had the freedom to do it.
Freedom has a frame of reference
If you ask someone these days what freedom is, you’ll likely get the answer “Being able to choose to do whatever you want to do”. And while this sounds good on the surface, this is only an apparent freedom.
The reason that doing whatever you want is only an illusion of true freedom is that so often what we want to do right now is something that fulfills a short term desire at the expense of something even greater in the long term.
Continuing in the health analogy, if I say I am free to eat what ever I want and then continually eat junk food, I end up in a state when I am far from free. I end up overweight, sluggish, restricted in the activities I can engage in. I don’t have the freedom to run like the wind and experience the exhilarating joy of having my body working at the fullness of its potential.
Rather than indulging in the base desires that I have in the present moment, true freedom is making the choice to take the actions that will lead to the longer term fulfillment of something much more rewarding. True freedom is stepping into the fullness of who I truly am, maximizing the development of every talent and wonderful unique characteristic that make me me. Settling for anything less is being trapped.
The “freedom” of choosing to become trapped doesn’t really make me free.
What this means for leaders
Understanding true freedom is crucial for leaders.
The greatest leadership is founded on unconditional love, on the genuine valuing of every person to an extraordinary degree, aligning all words, decisions, and actions with that recognition. And this involves valuing people so much that you help them to be free.
Parents know how this works. They set boundaries with their children, not allowing them to indulge in staring at screens and binging on junk food all day long. They do this because they love their child, and want to help their child be free. If a parent lets their child do whatever they want with no discipline, then that parent is actually being unloving.
As leaders of teams in an organization, we too must work with our people to determine appropriate boundaries and disciplines. We need clarity of goals. We need to agree on work practices that lead to the freedom of us being able to operate as a high performing team, rather than just leaving things wild open for anyone to do anything with no accountability.
Part of the wisdom of a loving leader is to know when to help people form structure and disciplines, and when to leave them wide open to run. If the worth of the people are not at the center of this thought process, then it leads to oppression. Rules get established and enforced that end up restricting rather than liberating. Or on the other end of the spectrum, the leader is too detached and the team end up getting trapped because they are too ad hoc.
The next time you encounter a situation where the question of freedom is at play, either in your own life or in your team, consciously consider what’s written in this blog. Ask yourself what ultimate freedom looks like. What is the frame of reference that is so great that were you able to operate in that frame that you could truly be free in the most exhilarating use of that word. And then consider the most loving way to help yourself and your team hold to the disciplines that will take you to that true freedom.