I was an attendee at a conference a number of years ago and the presenter, a teacher of considerable renown, was speaking about agency.

“Agency” is a social science term that is defined as “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”(

Early in her presentation, having clearly articulated the attributes of agency and its relevance to our time together, she asked us to engage in paired conversations about our personal experience, a time when we did or did not demonstrate agency.

After a short time she asked us to share our thoughts with the full group and I shot my hand in the air, eager to make a contribution.

She called on me and I proceeded to describe what my partner had said and why I thought it was an important point.

As the words were leaving my mouth I knew that I had stepped in it, big time. And since she was no small personality she let me and everyone else know it, too.

“Talk about stealing someone’s agency!” she bellowed, with the tone of a teacher resigned to her student’s position on the learning curve.

It felt pretty lousy to be called out like that. It was a healthy public shaming that I carried with me for quite a while. But I’m glad she made the point so energetically because I needed to hear it.

In my eagerness to make a “valuable” contribution, I stepped on someone else’s right to “make their own free choice.” Instead of inviting or encouraging my partner to share her story, I broke the unspoken trust of our brief interaction by putting it into the public domain.

I haven’t done it since, and when I encounter other’s trespassing in a similar way, I share my story as a cautionary tale.

Making space for other’s to be heard is one of the core responsibilities of leadership. Respecting the right of other’s to choose for themselves is just common decency.


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