What does the word “free” mean to you?
Before reading further…seriously, take a moment with that word. Not just what it makes you think of, but how it makes you feel.
Most often, we talk about being “free” to do something, “free” to be someone. And the nature of the word itself —- at least in a commercial or consumer sense —- seems to encapsulate this notion of being gifted or granted something at less than its real value.
Yet, how often do we talk about being free from something? And is that something outside of us …. or inside?
In most business schools and executive development programs, growth is portrayed as mapping out all the new skills, capabilities and experiences ahead of us, as if somehow we could master enough of those elements it will draw us forward to a new place. It’s that grappling hook on the rock face; we need only grasp it and pull, then hurl the hook to a new ledge and repeat. Whatever you do, don’t look back.
What fuels our growth in the first part of our careers is the accumulation of competencies, relationships and expertise; what often stalls that growth in the second part of our careers —- especially in senior leadership roles —- is our lack of awareness of what holds us back.
We all have those restraints, but we are less aware of them because they are out of our line of sight as we look ahead. They are rubber bands that have a way of snapping us back to an anchor point we thought we had long left behind. I have to prove myself. I don’t trust many people. I’m afraid to fail. I’m not comfortable being me. I was just raised that way. I’m worried about how to manage success. I don’t need help. I don’t have time to think about myself. I am just not a very open person. Where does all that come from?
The proposition that you can be free —- scissor those rubber bands and unleash a new sense of drive and purpose in your business and personal life —- is exhilarating to some, terrifying to others. Yet, I believe deeply that we all yearn for that at some level; we just develop impressive coping mechanisms to tuck them away or pretend they don’t matter. Or we give up on the whole idea of being free, resigning ourselves to play by every rule we can find. In the worst cases, we decorate our lives and careers with all kinds of practiced behaviors and symbols of success, like a modern-day Mr./Ms. Potato Head, and hope everybody will take it for the real thing. It does show, even if not to us.
And we lose something along the way.
Learning starts on the inside. Authenticity starts with vulnerability, especially first to ourselves, then to others we hope to lead. We cannot grasp something new until we let go of what is old.
This is not some ethereal, feel-good exercise. It is a hard-edged reality in leadership. If you’re not free, you cannot be free to lead. You will limit your thinking, your openness, your embrace of the unknown, your curiosity and passion for what could be … because you have not addressed it first in your own life.
Freedom is not free. It will cost us. For everyone it’s different, but the currency of the exchange is often our safety, our pride, our fear of discovery. What it will not cost us is our dignity.
Because I think the greatest dignity comes in being free.