Demand for more creative freedom, self-expression, greater distribution of power, and a strong say in how things are done, (which is being driven by younger workers in particular), are just some of the changes that are taking place in business. Although a rebalancing of the business paradigm to include new ratios of these elements is in process, the importance of liberty, freedom, and individualism are forces that have long been fundamental to our overall culture, and have been evolving in Western Europe and later in America for centuries.
St. Augustine asserted around 400 that “…we do by our free will whatsoever we know and feel to be done by us only because we will it.” St. Thomas Aquinas confirmed that idea and declared, “A man can direct and govern his own actions…” around 1250.
Those Europeans who left home, family, familiar surroundings and all the trappings of security to come to the “New World” were clearly the most passionate among their peers about seeking freedom. Early American flags and symbols included the Gadsden Flag and the first Navy Jacket which both bore the inscription “Don’t Tread On Me” along with the image of a rattlesnake.
Clearly, a core element of what it is to be an American has been a fierce sense of independence and personal freedom. In business a very high percentage of entrepreneurs found their companies to escape the perceived tyranny of having bosses and “confining” structures and processes. This is where things get tricky. These same fiercely independent creative visionaries then often want to control those around them in their own organizations. Part of this is certainly to create and maintain the quality of the products and/or services they offer, and to insure the execution of their vision, but part of it is certainly to maintain their own freedom. Collaboration requires that the idea of complete autonomy by a leader be “given up.” How do leaders think they can maximize performance of a modern organization with top-down initiatives, myriads of centrally generated goals, constant demands for conformity with corporate directives and HR policies, and regular “Performance Reviews?” As we have seen one of the most foundational elements of our culture is personal freedom. The expectation that employees will give theirs up and conform is almost ludicrous when you think about it from the larger cultural push for independence and freedom. True collaboration requires that strong-minded business owners and entrepreneurs have a deep respect for others and recognize that while they have strong opinions theirs is not the only perspective nor the only way. This can be a very difficult pill to swallow. Often entrepreneurs become successful, (or at least think they do), due to their ”single-mindedness.” However, this approach is not sustainable long-term in the new business paradigm that is emerging.
We are not saying we have all the answers to what appears to us to be a major “fatal flaw” in many of the leadership/management teams’ thinking that we encounter. Being an ostrich about such a fundamental problem with traditional corporate thinking does not, however, move us forward at anywhere near a fast enough rate to compete successfully in the modern business world. It is important that leaders recognize the powerful, cultural forces at work and that their own desire for freedom also exists in the hearts and minds of their employees and co-workers.
Obviously in the space of a blog it’s not possible to go deeply into all the issues around collaboration. We have proposed a number of ways to maximize freedom, initiative, creativity, and productivity in our book, “Accelerate: High Leverage Leadership For Today’s World” available here. We encourage vigorous inquiry and discussion and would love to hear your ideas on the subject!