Freedom in business can be a tricky concept, yet vital to success. As leaders, we have dedicated ourselves to the stewardship of our company, juggling the expectations of the board and the pressures of the economy. Tasked to manage profit, employees, the customer, and all the outside forces from unions to the UN, how can freedom figure into these relationships in a meaningful way?
What does it mean?
Cultivating freedom depends upon your powers of observation and the ability to reflect on those observations. This on-going process will free you from habitual habits of mind, allowing decision-making to move forward in fresh, innovative ways.
You might say, yes, lovely idea, but not going to happen. Dedicated to our company, we have the misconception that freedom untethers us from stewardship of our business, and we dismiss it. This is a false dichotomy. By pitting stewardship against freedom, we diminish both. Without freedom we are confined to ideas from the past, whereas factoring freedom into the equation allows for supple thinking to address the complicated, accelerating rate of change ahead, where leaders need to hold multi-valent positions simultaneously.
So, how can we cultivate freedom and apply it to our business?
Let’s experiment. At an office function, observe yourself. There you are in the center of things. Now imagine yourself stepping away from the conference table and standing near the far wall, watching yourself interact with people. Whom do you choose to speak with? Are you pulled in by certain people? Do you initiate conversations? Are you attentive to those serving you coffee? Now tag your behavior and reflect upon it. Experiment with engaging differently. By being willing to observe and reflect, and then try something new, you become a more responsive leader, less controlled by your own habitual behavior patterns.
To claim greater freedom as a leader, consider cultivating a larger circumference around your thinking. This next experiment, while more challenging, will heighten your awareness in surprising ways. Most of us are captured not only by our thoughts but also by how we identity with our roles. Can you separate yourself from your idea of yourself as a CEO or leader? For example, you know why you were hired. Whatever those attributes are, can you set them to the side, can you free yourself from identifying with them? This includes setting aside your history, your backstory, and how you define yourself, even who you think you are. This temporary letting go will cue you into that greater circumference around your thinking. You’ll be able to tap into an awareness unconstrained by previous habits of mind. And it is from this perspective that new, surprising pathways emerge.
We can cultivate freedom by engaging with what the creator of Square, Jim McKelvey, says in his book The Innovation Stack. He depicts innovation as taking place outside the proverbial walls of the city. Within the city, established practices have taken hold, and new ideas unfold at an incremental rate; copying of ideas and systems abound. Outside the city, where people are working through an untried idea, there is nothing to copy, a situation which creates fear, yes, and also opportunity and speed. Are we interested enough in designing something new to actually step outside the city, freeing ourselves from the tried and true?
Here’s an example. When I was CEO of Burgerville, we observed national companies from out of town competing for local resources, and their profit was not being reinvested locally. We stepped outside of our usual way of thinking, not just focusing on our company, and thereby freeing ourselves up for new opportunities. We asked, “What could we do for the local economy?”
A mint farmer answered our question by inviting us to invest in his mint crop. We took a tour of the farm, savoring organic mint on one of the few organic mint farms in the world, now precarious. We developed a recipe for mint chocolate milkshakes, which, according to the farmer himself, kept his farm afloat during the pandemic. He dedicated product to us, so that we had little of the supply chain issues that plagued many businesses. By freeing ourselves to step outside the city, putting forward service to the community, we experienced tremendous mutual benefit, good for business and good for our world.
How you define yourself is what you’re limited to. Here’s a way to change that. Set the phone’s timer for one minute. Now practice stepping back from how you see yourself in your leadership role. Let go of your track record. There’s a sense of a larger space now, where you are outside the city. Continue this practice to design your business approach anew, developing freedom and stewardship to meet the myriad challenges of a complex world.
Jill Taylor, (RN, MN) is co-founder and CEO of three businesses, and has devoted her career to fostering unique methods of transformation for individuals, teams and companies. She co-founded The Taylor Group with her mother, Carolyn Taylor, at the forefront of wellness and leadership, helping clients understand the nature of the changes confronting them and how to become new inside those changes. Then as CEO of Burgerville, Jill helped the company navigate Covid with strategic flexibility while strengthening local economies by working with local farmers to the benefit of all. Together with Shelly Cooper and Daniel Goodenough, in 2023, Jill co-founded the HuPerson Project to transform a leader’s awareness and presence, and to open a new structure of thinking needed to navigate the world emerging.