One of the highest forms of responsibility is the responsibility to be free. One of the highest forms of freedom is the freedom to be responsible…Yet if we examine our lives closely, most of us will find that we are slaves to something that defines our zone of comfort – whether it be the approval of others, a need for status, a need to avoid conflict, or any one of a thousand other things that keep us from being truly committed to a purpose. (Robert Quinn, 2004, Building The Bridge As You Walk On It)
Responsible freedom emerges from commitment to the purposeful pursuit of the richer connections of interdependent relationships. Choosing to be responsible for continued personal renewal requires a lifetime of discipline, a lifetime of practice. Only when you continually abandon the hypocrisy of your current self can you grow to know your best self. A balance of self-control and expressive spontaneity mark the speech that flows from the character of a leader modeling responsible freedom. When you choose to step into the fullness of your responsibility for your intentions, behavior, and words, you become a signal in an ocean of noise.
Foolish freedom is the ocean of noise generated by those with unbridled hubris. Now more than ever, you really can choose to say and do whatever you want; however, you can’t pretend that your choices are void of consequence. Freedom without responsibility for consequence is fools gold. The words and behavior of a leader modeling foolish freedom are so spontaneous and expressive as to be undisciplined and irresponsible.
I teach these concepts in my MBA course on Leading Change. Robert Quinn’s is the first book we read in the course because his message is simple and powerful. Quinn’s key point is that organizations do not change significantly unless someone inside the organization changes significantly; hence, self-change is the key to organizational change. Ever increasing integrity is the driving force of self-change; the discipline to chose to daily confront the biggest hypocrite you will ever encounter in your organization – the one you see in the mirror.
I’ve taught the concept of responsible freedom numerous times, yet I still struggle to understand what it means in my own life. The responsibility to be free is easier for me to wrap my brain around. I try to focus less on what people think about me, and more on clarifying my values and aligning my behavior with those values. The more difficult concept for me is the freedom to be responsible. According to Miriam Webster, “responsible” means able to answer for ones conduct or obligations.
I can’t think of a higher freedom than to be able to answer “who am I becoming?” In any group that I’m a part of – family, church, work, city, country – I recognize that my ability to answer “who are we becoming?” will always be a direct reflection of who I choose to be today.