The Paradox of Freedom

The things that free you also bind you.

It is a sad cliché that the prisoner, finally freed after years of confinement, has a difficult time adjusting to his new reality. In the face of so many possibilities – so many necessary daily choices and responsibilities – a highly routinized lifestyle dictated by someone else’s agenda could become impossible to live without. Certainly there are days or even just situations where you would much rather have someone else decide. The responsibility of freedom can be exhausting.

I think back on my transition out of corporate life and into the new life of a small business owner and I am reminded of Karen Horney’s (1945) psychological construct that each of us tends to cope with our basic anxiety along one of three dimensions: moving towards people (compliance), moving against them (aggression) or moving away from them (withdrawal). While each approach is available to us, it is our natural tendency to default to one of these primary coping mechanisms.

My default position for anxiety management has long been withdrawal. Frustrated by the demands of compliance and afraid of the consequences of conflict I would simply disappear, my aggression dissipated passively on those who were least deserving of it! Back to the career change, I recall so many people expressing to me how much sense it made that I was finally going to “do my own thing.” I buoyed myself, as I entered a new unknown, with their casual confidence and borrowed as much of it as I could. Looking back on the bumpiness of that first year – a particular and predictable set of anxious feelings – I recognize that the root of the challenge in my transition to a new life of “freedom” was that I was operating from the stress of reactivity rather than the stress of possibility.

As “right” as the change was on its face, it was also another excellent example of my tendency to “move away.” Initially, I made the move in order to get away from a particular set of circumstances rather than to manifest those of my own intention. It was no surprise then that I did not think of myself as a small business owner because to do so requires clarity of purpose, vision and direction. With the gift of space and time, and with the learning that comes from even incremental progress, that definition eventually emerged and I began to operate not from the insecurity of anxiousness (reactively) but from the confidence of determination (proactively).

I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate my default reaction to stress but I do think it’s possible to become deeply educated about my tendency and to stay open to new ways of orienting to the world. As comforting as it may sometimes be to take refuge there, it is imperative that we acknowledge, finally, that the prison cell we have created is not locked, and it never was.



A post script
: What do you notice about your style under stress? Do you disappear? Do you agitate and express frustration? Do you fall into line to diminish the feelings of uncertainty? The opportunity to become your own authority – to more effectively contend with life’s anxieties – exists in your willingness to, (1) identify the pattern and (2) free yourself to choose a new approach in the moment. 


 

rusted grey padlock in selective focus photography

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Set Them Free

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

~ Hafiz


Today, will you build more cages or drop more keys?

The “small” leader needs to control because he feels out of control. He is small because he does not trust himself which means he cannot trust others. He is small because change frightens him, imagination freezes him, possibility unnerves him. He is small because what he cannot imagine for himself he must disallow for others.

The “sage” is a towering figure not because of stature but because of presence. His equanimity comes from learning to see control as an easy, costly fantasy. He trusts himself because he knows himself; he has done the work. And by doing the work he has developed the capacity to accept the unfinished in others. He is unfinished as well.

The sage welcomes change, because it is inevitable. Imagination is his wellspring of possibility, energizing both mind and heart. He knows that he is a catalyst for the emergence of these qualities in others.

Their rowdiness does not unsettle him; it’s what makes them beautiful. And he takes seriously his responsibility to unlock it because otherwise it will die.

The sage is the very best of who we can be.


rusted grey padlock in selective focus photography

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Freedom to Create, Freedom to Lead

Those who allow themselves to be challenged and changed will be the new creative leaders of the next period of history.
{Richard Rohr}


The disciplines of creativity and leadership require freedom from the limitations that stem from our undeveloped, unexamined selves.

You cannot be creative if you are continuously second-guessing yourself, consumed by concern about other’s opinions or stifled by perfectionism. It just doesn’t work that way. And the same goes for leadership.

To do either effectively demands agility, flexibility, exploration and the ego strength that only comes from robust self-awareness.

Creative leadership, then, exists when the leader engages the team in an open and ongoing conversation about what is working, what is not, where we are going and what we can do to get there.

Creative leadership, then, requires a dedicated effort to normalize change as the best friend of our future effectiveness.

When we celebrate our freedom, the independence gained from breaking old constraints, we are also called to celebrate the opportunity to be stewards of a new creation.


bird animal freedom fly

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What they want

“They” are your team. You are their leader. This is what they want:

Meaning. Also known as “purpose” and “vision.” When they say, “I want to be part of something larger than myself!” this is what they’re talking about.

Trust. I once heard a leader say, “They have to earn my trust.” The only acceptable response to that statement is, no.

You recruit them and then hire them because you believe they have what it takes to make you and the team better, to help you fulfill your purpose and vision. And then they show up and have to earn your trust?

Your job is to earn their trust, every day. The trust that comes when you care for them, when you provide them the resources they need to be successful, when you care for them, when you clear roadblocks for them, when you surround them with great people, when you care for them…you get the idea.

Freedom. They are smart (because you hire smart people) so let them work. Make job expectations clear, the parameters of the project explicit, and work hours flexible. Give them space within a defined context and then get out of the way. And stop having so many meetings. Meetings are killing your culture, reducing feelings of freedom and corroding trust.

Development. Everyone has a development plan, a roadmap to their future, their definition of “more.” You coach them with feedback, powerful questions and accountability for progress. You give them resources, study groups, speakers, coaches, whatever is needed to cultivate and catalyze the learning. This is about creatively answering the most important question in front of you: How do we equip ourselves for change? Yes, it’s expensive but not nearly as expensive as filling all of the open positions that will exist when they leave to find these things someplace else.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

It Can Be Done Another Way

I find it easy sometimes to get stuck on how something should be done versus how something can be done. Preferences for certain actions can blind us to the fact that a chosen behavior is indeed preferential and not the only option.

We have some large palm trees in our front yard and occasionally a frond will snap and fall to the ground. These can be ten feet long and very heavy which means they need to be cut up to fit in our green waste can. I have a great hand saw that is perfect for the job while also providing a decent workout!

On one occasion I asked my son to do the cutting and he proceeded to plug-in an electric saw – not one intended for this kind of job – and carved up the branch without breaking a sweat. I remember saying, “That’s not how you do it! You’re supposed to use the hand saw.”

He gave me his best “Are you kidding me?” look with a hint of “Did you want this done or did you want this done your way?” I don’t remember exactly but I probably doubled-down with something like, “But that’s what the hand saw is for, not to mention it’s good exercise.”

That went about as well as you’d expect.

The fact is that he got the job done in a perfectly acceptable way and in a manner that was gratifying to him. Regardless of how I feel about it, that should be enough.

The leadership lesson in this is that if you hire highly qualified people and pay them highly qualified salaries you need to provide them the autonomy they need to do what you hired them to do. Creative and capable people will express themselves beautifully in the right conditions, and those conditions must always include the freedom to make their mark, to test ideas, to share their experience and to solve problems.

Breaking a sweat can be gratifying but it’s hardly ever proof of the best way to do the work.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

#500

On May 14, 2007 I uploaded my first blog post. It was this poem – The Journey – by Mary Oliver:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Today, over eleven short years later, you are reading post #500.

As the poem concludes, I started writing in this space “determined to do the only thing I could do – determined to save the only life I could save.”

What that meant then is that I was desperate to unlock my capacity to express myself on the issues, ideas and opportunities that matter to me most. To that point and for a long time after, it felt like too big a risk to be thought of as a fraud or a phony; a poor writer with poor ideas and a poor ability to share them. That’s what my merciless voice in the head had to say about it, anyway.

These days I write less to conquer demons and more to help me think. As a daily discipline it has both a meditative quality as well as a purposeful intent. The discipline is to stop long enough to germinate a thought and turn that thought into something I want to say. The meditative quality is that I don’t know where it will lead but I trust that it will be somewhere good, or at least good enough. And the purpose is that I want to be a catalyst; that I have a responsibility to push myself and others to start and sustain conversations that matter about leadership, change and the rough road to self-awareness.

Of course, there’s an ego component as well. I wonder who is reading or not; why or why not. I relish the thoughtful comments, questions and encouragement that come my way, brief reminders that something has landed, a nudge to keep going.

But even that satisfaction has taken a back seat to the value I gain, personally and intimately, from simply thinking onto the page.

I am no longer vexed by the inner demons. I no longer feel a sense of “should” or “have to.” Today, I write because it makes me a better person, in the way that any daily practice of stopping, thinking, and expressing will do.

To paraphrase Seth Godin, whose encouragement inspires me to continue, we will never have more freedom – to express, to create, to build, to disrupt, to connect – than we do right now. Might as well take advantage of it.

And so I will. Thank you for reading.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Convicted

I found myself feeling particularly certain about something today. I didn’t just feel certain about it, I felt convicted.

And once ‘conviction’ was in my mind I couldn’t stop thinking about being found guilty and sent away to prison.

I realized that my convictions sometimes lead to self-incarceration. When I cross over from certainty to conviction I end up in a prison of my own making, so securely guarded that I can’t even find the key.

I’ve heard that parolees often have a difficult time adjusting to life outside of prison. The chaos of the “free” world is no picnic compared to the patterns of captivity.

When we normalize imprisonment, freedom is lost. And freedom is everything.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

One Beam of Light

I think it’s extraordinary that even the smallest light can illuminate the darkest space. Consider that for a moment: no matter how dark it is, if you have one ray, one beam of light, you can see. And once you can see, you can act. And once you can act you are steps away from being out of the confines of darkness and into the freedom of light.

What is your one beam of light?

Is it a friendship, a poem, a word?

Is it a quote, your marriage, a lifelong friend?

Is it a story of redemption, a moment of truth, an episode of daring?

Is it a work of art, a song, a chance encounter?

Is it your child, a value, a strength?

Is it your work? Is it your faith?

One beam of light transforms the darkness. Every time.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

On whose example do you model your leadership?

A writer I admire said that the way to find one’s own voice as a writer is to imitate other writers. He said that by imitating them you allow yourself to write more freely because you have a model to follow rather than feeling the pressure to be an original voice. Because, of course, you can’t be those other writers but can only do a faint and probably poor imitation, what will begin to emerge is a version of the style you admire which you can practice and refine over time into one that is your own.

I had a similar discussion once with a mentor of mine who said in a discussion of leadership principles that “everything is derivative”; that we are always interpreting and reinterpreting the work, ideas and perspectives of the teachers who have come before us, those we have chosen to turn to as models for how to live, work and lead.

Again there is freedom is this thinking because it grants permission to build on the work of others – to stand on the shoulders of giants – instead of having to start out as giants ourselves.

If modeling is the path to leadership mastery, if it is the means by which you can ultimately claim your leadership “voice,” then there is one question you must answer as capably and responsibly as you can: on whose example do you model your leadership?


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Freedom to Choose

Freedom

– William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems

I have to choose my freedom. It is not given to me by role or position. It is not taken from me by oppression or circumstance. My freedom is exercised in the present moment when I choose how to respond to what’s happening rather than to let’s what’s happening make the choice for me.

I am reminded of a quote of unknown origin: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I imagine what would be different if I learned to take the pause in that space…to consider the options before me and to then make the most positive, constructive choice possible. I imagine that because so many days…so many times per day…I cannot see the space and so I cannot make the choice. I just react.

I am called – as all leaders, all parents, all spouses, all colleagues – are called, to dedicate and rededicate myself to personal responsibility; the responsibility to remember that my freedom is a choice.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.