Freedom Defined in the Twenty-First Century

Today’s technology is bringing freedom to our shrinking planet. Thomas Friedman highlighted the trend in his book The World Is Flat. It’s always been a universal truth from the hammer to the Gutenburg press, yet today it’s affecting more humans than ever before. In 1969, poet William Stafford wrote about the importance of this frequently used abstraction that we rarely define through a unique angle. Stafford, however, defines the vague umbrella term of “freedom” as something that could benefit all.


Freedom is not following a riverpatagonia_1
Freedom is following a river,
though, if you want to.
It is deciding now by what happens now.
It is knowing that luck makes a difference.

No leader is free; no follower is free—
the rest of us can often be free.
Most of the world are living by
creeds too odd, chancy, and habit-forming
to be worth arguing about by reason.

If you are oppressed, wake up about
four in the morning; most places
you can usually be free some of the time
if you wake up before other people.

Being able to make a decision is the essence of “freedom.” Stafford suggests that if you literally “wake up about four in the morning…before other people,” you’ll have some room to be free.

Does freedom require “enough space” so that we can be ourselves, so that we can dream and be original and creative, optimistic, and productive?

Does “wake up” also mean that we wake up our attitudes, so that we’re not simply following a river selected by the traditional CEO or manager but rather choosing to follow a certain river?

Last century, most leaders made independent decisions, but were they actually limited and constrained by a business model designed to ensure the loyalty of followers and the success of the leader’s policies?

We must break the industrial-age model in which “No leader is free; no follower is free” because both the leader and follower follow that powerfully flowing, one-direction river, rather than choosing to follow a river if they want to.

To encourage individuals to dream and continually move forward, leaders must create genuine environments where people don’t have to “wake up about four in the morning” to be independent, self-reliant, and make decisions. They need daily work settings that encourage them to be un-swayed by the attitudes, expectations, or edicts of others. We need enough space so that each day leads us to imagine controversial, quirky, and unique ideas like those at Google, Amazon, and Apple—innovations that are changing not only business but also the planet.

Stafford may be stating that to be truly free we must not become prisoners of trends, group think, ideology, or tradition. Instead leaders today must encourage employees to question, to trust their ideas, and to continue to grow if they are truly free, which requires twenty-first-century choice, not twentieth-century following.

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