Independence Day was yesterday and it had me thinking about freedom. As we all know, the desire to be free from the rule of the British Empire was the driving force for the fledgling United States to declare their independence. Such bravery and courage it took for our Founding Fathers to make that stand! It gives great meaning to the last line of the Declaration of Independence: “…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
But I was thinking of freedom in the context of leadership and a question occurred to me: Does my leadership inspire freedom in my people? It’s an interesting question to consider.
I believe leadership should inspire people to be the best versions of themselves. It should encourage others to manifest the full expression of their intelligence and creativity, and in order to do that, people need to be free. They need leaders who foster an environment of freedom and liberty rather than fear or oppression.
I think it’s fairly easy to know if your leadership inspires freedom or fear. All you have to do is look at your people and see how they act. Here are four telltale signs you’ve inspired freedom in your people:
1. They take appropriate risks – Call it what you will…using their best judgment, not asking your permission, showing a sense of ownership, or acting like they own the place…they’re all ways of describing employees who know they have the freedom to do their jobs the best way possible. They know that if they use their best judgment and take a risk that the boss will support them regardless of the outcome. Freedom inspires ownership and engagement on the part of employees. Fear-based leaders develop employees who only do the minimum amount of work required. They wait for the boss to tell them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Leaders who inspire freedom in others have team members who know they are trusted to do their jobs the right way and they act responsibly because they value and appreciate the trust and confidence from their leaders.
2. They aren’t afraid to speak truth to power – Freedom-inspiring leaders foster an environment where people know they can give honest feedback without fear of recrimination. These kinds of leaders model what it means to give and receive feedback in healthy ways and their people follow suit. People who are afraid of their leaders never speak up. Their feedback is delivered in the form of gossip or venting with coworkers which leads to poor team morale and loss of productivity. They’ve learned from experience that speaking truth to power only leads to discipline, harsh treatment on the job, or outright termination. Are your people afraid to give you feedback, or have you fostered a sense of trust, freedom, and openness with your people that allow them to approach you with feedback they know you may not enjoy? When’s the last time a team member approached you to express disagreement with a decision you made? If it’s been awhile, don’t automatically assume it’s because everyone agrees with your decisions. They might just be afraid to tell you the truth.
3. They readily admit their mistakes – People who work in an environment of fear hide their mistakes and hope that no one finds out. They’ve learned the hard way that if they make a mistake there is going to be hell to pay. So they brush it under the rug, try to fix it as best as they can, and hope and pray the boss doesn’t find out. On the other hand, people who work in an environment of freedom will bring their mistakes to the boss’ attention, most likely after they’ve already resolved the problem (because they aren’t afraid to take initiative to fix their own mistakes). Freedom inspires looking at mistakes as learning opportunities instead of occasions for discipline or punishment. How are mistakes handled in your team? Do team members have the freedom to openly address them or is it taboo to admit they goofed up?
4. They share their heart with you – If you have employees share their fears, hopes, and dreams with you, then you know you’ve inspired freedom. That means they’ve let down their guard, they trust you, and they’re willing to be vulnerable because they know you won’t judge them or take advantage of them. That doesn’t happen with leaders who inspire fear. Actually, not much of anything positive happens with leaders who lead by fear. People bring their whole selves to work. It’s just not possible to separate the personal and professional when you walk through the office doors, even though many leaders expect their people to do so, as if it’s as easy as flipping a light switch. Leaders in the 21st century have to know they are required to manage and lead the whole person, not just a warm body who shows up to do a job. If you’re people aren’t afraid to open up to you, then you’re doing a good job fostering freedom. If that’s not the case, then alarm bells should be going off in your mind because you’ve got a problem.
Those are four pretty clear signs a leader is fostering an environment of freedom. But how do leaders actually create that sort of vibe within their teams? How do they lead in freedom-inspiring ways? I’ll explore that in a future post. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Are their other signs you would add that show a leader inspires freedom? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.