Whether it shows up as stress, top-down leadership styles, drama, or uncertainty, fear kills good decision-making, dampens morale, lowers employee engagement, and hurts bottom-line growth.
The good news is that there’s an antidote: Freedom at Work.
In this groundbreaking book, Traci Fenton brings together decades of original research, based on her team’s work with hundreds of top companies around the world, such as The WD-40 Company, Mindvalley, DaVita, Menlo Innovations, Zappos, HCL Technologies, and more, revealing the proven pathway to leadership success.
This powerful strategy will benefit any leader at any level in any type of organization, from entrepreneurs to mid-level managers to the C-suite.
Freedom at Work is based on three key pillars:
• Freedom-Centered Mindset: Break through limitations, make better decisions, and act with clarity and confidence
• Freedom-Centered Leadership: Lead yourself and others from a place of freedom rather than fear
• Freedom-Centered Design: Develop a world-class culture based on the 10 Principles of Organizational Democracy
Freedom at Work is a revolutionary guide that will help make any organization high-performing and highly profitable, while creating a culture people love. This book will help passionate leaders weave freedom and democracy into our global tapestry through the way they run their teams and organizations—ultimately transforming our world for the better.
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About the Author
Traci is a globally recognized keynote speaker, author, and transformational coach to CEOs and leaders worldwide. As a “Thinkers50 Radar” award winner, Traci was called “a game changer in transforming the culture of organizations.” She was also named a “World-Changing Woman in Conscious Business” by SOCAP Global, recognized in Inc. magazine as one of the “Top 50 Leadership Innovators,” and honored as a Marshall Goldsmith “Top 100 Coach.”
Traci frequently speaks worldwide to top leaders and their teams. She has spoken at numerous organizations such as Harvard, Yale, Yahoo!, and the US Naval Academy, and at events such as South by Southwest and TEDx. Her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, Inc., BusinessWeek, NPR, BBC, and media outlets around the world. Traci holds a BA in Global Studies and Entrepreneurship from Principia College and an MA in International Development from American University in Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
Our unalterable resolution should be to be free.
On June 15, 1215, beneath the trees of Runnymede, by the lush green banks of the River Thames, stood a council of twenty-five deeply frustrated barons who were fed up with King John’s mismanagement, poor decision-making,
and tyrannical leadership. On that historic day in England, they had the king sign a peace treaty known as Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” limiting his powers and creating a “year zero” in humanity’s struggle for freedom and democracy.
Echoes of this pivotal document, along with inspiration gleaned from older Turkish, Greek, and Roman examples, Biblical principles, and the Native
American Iroquois’ model of democracy, would later influence the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, establishing the most powerful and longest-running democratic constitutional republic in the world: the United States of America.
Such movements for freedom, enshrined in these most cherished and sacred documents, would tap into a universal Truth: humankind’s divine right to be free. In the words of US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the Middle Ages. It was written in the Magna Carta.” And yet, despite the fact that “the democratic aspiration,” as Roosevelt put it, is thousands of years old, the true promise of democracy has not penetrated where it can make the most difference in our daily lives: namely, in the way we work.
Nearly eight hundred years after the barons’ triumph at Runnymede, Kent was confronted with the biggest leadership challenge of his life. The Harvard
MBA had just agreed to turn around a large healthcare company that was anything but healthy itself. He was about to impact thousands of customers,
shareholders, and employees and their families all over the world. Little did he know then that the organization would one day become a thriving Fortune 500
company, and he and the organization would become a case study of exemplary leadership for top business schools.
Yet, at that point the company’s future was anything but guaranteed. They were rapidly losing cash, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Shareholders were suing. Morale was at an all-time low. Executives were either being fired or quitting. As Kent later shared, “If a single bank had asked for a single dollar the company might have gone under. It was a brutally negative place. People were angry and scared.” He had been hired to lead everyone out of the fear and chaos—but how would he do it?
Most leaders, when faced with circumstances that must be turned around,
resort to a top-down, fear-and-control style of leadership that can leave carnage and resentment in its wake. This style may be effective in the short term but hardly ever wins the long game. Faced with worry, stress, and expectations of success, many leaders can’t mentally pivot out of their own fears to think from a different leadership paradigm altogether.
Despite the pressure to conform to a tyrannical, slash-and-burn leadership style typical of most turnaround CEOs, Kent had a different philosophy altogether.
He envisioned an organization filled not with dejected, traumatized,
and demoralized employees who were just mentally “renting space” each day,
but with engaged, joyous, and purposeful citizens. To build this democratic community first, and a company second, as he later explained it, he himself would have to resist the pull toward centralized leadership. He could only realize this vision if he led in a very different way—if he led democratically. But would his employees follow?
When Kent announced his vision for how he wanted to turn the company around, about a third of its leaders and employees thought the idea was ridiculous and that it would take a herculean effort just to make payroll that month. Another third thought it was a “nice idea,” but that a democratic leadership style would eventually buckle under the severity of the problems they faced. “I would go back to my hotel room at night in those early days and cry, wondering if I was on the right path,” the CEO would later share at their annual leadership event.
What exactly is this democratic leadership style Kent hoped to implement? The term democracy comes from the Greek words demos, “the people,” and kratein,
“to rule.” The essence of democracy is that we the people have the unalienable right and responsibility of self-government; not the state, an oligarchy, a dictatorship, or a monarchy. A democratic leadership style, which is applicable to every area of life where leadership is needed, is exactly what Kent wanted to use to turn the company around. He believed that by tapping into the spirit of freedom inside each employee and leader, he could activate a remarkable turnaround from the inside out.
Kent also knew what many of us inherently understand: that top-down,
fear-based leadership—whether used centuries ago or today—is highly dependent on one (or a few!) individuals’ agendas, personalities, whims, moods,
intellect, and shortcomings. Fear-based leadership, in all its forms, is not only an inadequate leadership style for leading in highly complex circumstances; it is also highly unpredictable and often dangerous, costing money and even lives.
There’s a reason why the greatest thinkers in human history, to whom we turn for eternal guidance, weren’t advocates for the monarchical, tyrannical, or dictatorial control of many by one. They had the wisdom to understand that democratic leadership was a more intelligent system of leadership. It was more just, humane, and moral. It was an act of love toward our fellow human beings.
It took the long view. A democratic style of leadership has been responsible for more ingenuity, prosperity, happiness, and success in human history than any other style of leadership because a democratic style of leadership taps into the core idea that we are made to be free.
Now, we value democracy. We understand that nations are formed by it.
We’re happy to live in freedom (if we do). But the problem is, most of us don’t really understand what democracy is, why it’s the most effective style of leadership,
and how to actually practice it. And if you don’t understand it, then you certainly can’t choose to lead with it—and ultimately, you can’t reap all of the benefits it has to offer.
My personal journey to discovering the power of democracy began back in the fall of my senior year of college. Our college president had selected me to be the director of our prestigious, student-run public affairs conference. I asked my ambitious student team to come up with a topic for the event that would be out of the box, forward thinking, and globally aware. One fall day, after months of research, they came back to me and proposed that the theme of the conference should be . . . democracy. As I stood in the college president’s boardroom, my jaw dropped in disbelief. “Democracy means voting and old men in politics in
Washington, DC,” I said to them, stunned. Privately, I thought, What part of
“ forward thinking” do they not understand?!
They asked me to hear them out, so I listened. They explained to me that democracy wasn’t just a political concept per se, but a way of leading and organizing people so that they could release their full potential, promise, and purpose.
And when I heard that, something clicked for me.
I started to see how a democratic style of leadership created the conditions where individuals could learn self-government, develop a deeper sense of self-worth,
and rise to their full leadership potential.
This decision changed my life. I shifted my undergraduate thesis to be about discovering the principles of democracy, and later focused my graduate studies in this area as well. I researched what democratic leadership is—
and what it isn’t. I studied classical democratic thought and read everything I
could on democracy, from the Romans to the Greeks, the Native Americans to the Founding Fathers of the United States, religious texts as well as leading philosophers and contemporary thinkers. I studied democracy in multiple spheres of life, such as schools and businesses, urban planning, and music and the arts, and identified the core democratic principles that kept coming up.
I traveled throughout democratic and undemocratic countries in North and
South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, interviewing dozens of practitioners of democracy about what they believed constituted the fundamental principles of democracy. And I attended multiple global forums and conferences devoted to exploring democracy and its various practices.
I was looking for the core causal principles that must be present to create a democratic system. After a decade of research, ten foundational principles of organizational democracy emerged.
THE WORLDBLU 10 PRINCIPLES OF ORGANIZATIONAL DEMOCRACY STAGE PRINCIPLE DEFINITION
1. Purpose and Vision
Purpose and Vision are at work when each individual and the organization know their reason for being and have a sense of intentional direction.
Integrity is at work when each individual and the organization uphold high moral and ethical principles.
3. Dialogue and Listening
Dialogue and Listening are at work when each individual listens and engages in conversation in a way that deepens meaning and connection.
Transparency is at work when ideas and information are openly and responsibly shared.
Accountability is at work when each individual and the organization are responsible to each other for their actions.
Decentralization is at work when power is appropriately shared throughout an organization.
7. Individual and Collective
The Individual and the Collective are at work when the rights of both are valued and respected.
Choice is at work when each individual chooses between different possibilities.
9. Fairness and Dignity
Fairness and Dignity are at work when each individual is treated justly and impartially and is recognized for their inherent worth.
10. Reflection and Evaluation
Reflection and Evaluation are at work when each individual and the organization are committed to continuous feedback and growth.
All ten principles must be present for a system to be distinctly democratic.
(Other principles, such as ownership, trust, justice, and empowerment, came up again and again in my research, but it became clear that they are actually the results of democracy, not its cause. In other words, if they didn’t help create a democratic leadership and organizational system but were instead outcomes of it,
they weren’t foundational principles—so that’s why they didn’t make the list.)
Of course, democratic leadership is not new. Many ancient and contemporary leadership thinkers whom I highly respect (please see my list of recommended reading in the resources section on page 239) have written about freedom and organizational democracy. My goal is not to repackage what has been written before; to the best of my knowledge, no one has clearly articulated the exact principles of democracy in this way. Rather, my express goal is to help you understand with confidence and conviction what the ten principles of democracy actually are, so you can use them to build more democratic organizations, and ultimately help build a more democratic world. By understanding these principles, I hope to make democratic leadership even clearer and therefore easier for you to implement in your life, team, or organization. In the following pages, we will take an exciting, in-depth look at these principles, and how, as a leader, you can use them to solve your leadership and organizational challenges in unexpected and encouraging ways.
In the spring of my last quarter of college, I was so inspired by what I was discovering about the relationship between leadership and democracy that I
founded WorldBlu. We are a global leadership company teaching the mindset,
leadership skills, and organizational design of Freedom at Work to members worldwide. We’re called WorldBlu because blue is widely recognized as the color of freedom, and our vision is to see a world where everyone can live, lead,
and work in freedom rather than fear. Our name captures our vision in a word.
In the years since we were founded, my team and I have worked with thousands of CEOs and top leaders in over a hundred countries and in companies ranging from small organizations to Fortune 500s, such as The WD-40 Company,
Zappos, Mindvalley, DaVita, Pandora, Hulu, GE Aviation Durham, Achievers,
Menlo Innovations, Widen, Podio, RevAsia, and HCL Technologies. I have also had the privilege of speaking to leaders around the world at entities such as
Harvard, Yale, the US Naval Academy, the University of Southern California,
and South by Southwest. It seems that the concept of democratic leadership,
while thousands of years old, is just as fresh and timely today as it was when my peers and I organized that student conference! The journey of working with these top leaders and organizations over the past two decades has been deeply educational and fulfi lling, and it’s why I am so excited to share their stories with you.
This is how the Freedom at Work leadership model came to life. The model is based on three key pillars:
The Freedom at Work Leadership Model
1: FREEDOM-CENTERED MINDSET
A Freedom-Centered Mindset lays the foundation for Freedom at Work. It is about making better decisions, being more creative, overcoming limitations,
and imagining new possibilities from a mindset of freedom rather than fear.
What does this mean for a leader and their team or organization? Action rather than analysis paralysis, alignment rather than distrust, and personal accountability rather than victimhood, all translating into forward progress. In Part
II of this book, I’ll be teaching you a five-step practice to shift your mindset instantly from fear to freedom, and then how to help others on your team do the same.
2: FREEDOM-CENTERED LEADERSHIP
Freedom-Centered Leadership is about leading yourself and others with skills that enhance freedom with personal accountability rather than fear and control.
There are three core attributes of Freedom-Centered Leadership—Power,
Love, and Ubuntu—and these develop a leader’s ability to self-govern, have high self-worth, and cultivate self-knowledge. These three areas get at the root issues that cause most leadership success or failure. You’ll learn about this in
3: FREEDOM-CENTERED DESIGN
Freedom-Centered Design is about designing your team or organization’s systems and processes in accord with the WorldBlu 10 Principles of Organizational
Democracy (which are the ten foundational principles I listed on page xxi). This remarkable and comprehensive system of democratic principles,
when fully implemented, creates Freedom-Centered Teams or Organizations that make more money, outperform their competitors, are more sustainable during crises or recessions, use their resources more wisely and efficiently, and innovate and execute with speed.
Table of Contents
Author's Notes xiii
Part I Freedom at Work
Fear at Work 3
The Promise of Freedom at Work 11
Part II Freedom-Centered Mindset
Shifting Your Mindset from Fear to Freedom 27
The Power Question Practice 33
Part III Freedom-Centered Leadership
The Three Attributes of Freedom-Centered Leadership 45
Part IV Freedom-Centered Design
Organizational Democracy: The Framework for Freedom 83
Principle 1 Purpose and Vision 95
Principle 2 Integrity 107
Principle 3 Dialogue and Listening 121
Principle 4 Transparency 135
Principle 5 Accountability 149
Principle 6 Decentralization 159
Principle 7 Individual and Collective 175
Principle 8 Choice 189
Principle 9 Fairness and Dignity 199
Principle 10 Reflection and Evaluation 213
Seven Ways to [Accidentally] Destroy Your Successful Freedom-Centered Organization 225
Conclusion: Why Freedom at Work Matters to Freedom in Our World 233
About the Author 267
About WorldBlu 269
What People are Saying About This
“Ideals like freedom, self-determination, and democracy are too often shelved when we show up to work, where for some reason we too willingly accept a culture of surveillance and even fear. In this powerful and engaging book, Traci Fenton lays out how we can actually bring the ideals of democracy to our workplaces—and why everyone from CEOs to workers to communities stand to benefit.”
—Daniel H. Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive, and To Sell Is Human
“Centuries from now, when business school historians are seeking the source of truth for the undeniable renaissance in business thinking that occurred early in the 21st century, thinking that led to the flourishing of ideas, people, and profits in corporations around the world, they will find author Traci Fenton. Traci will be known as the indomitable soul and spirit fostering, over her lifetime, a movement towards freedom, democracy, and yes, even joy, in the context of work. Those historians will discover that every one of the vanguard businesses of the 21st century had well-worn copies of Freedom at Work: The Leadership Strategy for Transforming Your Life, Your Organization, and Our World on the shelves of their corporate libraries and the desks of their people. You, the enlightened leader, who has been searching for such inspiration and results, will have put this book there.”
—Richard Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller at Menlo Innovations and author of Joy, Inc. and Chief Joy Officer
“If you’re not leading with freedom, you’re leading with fear. That’s the most striking message in Freedom at Work. We believe in the principles of Freedom at Work. Putting them into practice has helped us maintain our employee engagement of 93% and both grow our revenue and deliver value to our stakeholders.”
—Garry Ridge, CEO and chairman of WD-40 Company and coauthor of Helping People Win at Work
“The brilliant Traci Fenton taps into a concept that is missing today—not only in workplaces, but often in our daily lives: freedom. Embracing freedom in the workplace won’t just benefit your organization at every level, it will promote an important precedent that lets all individuals shine.”
—Jamie Naughton Henriod, Former Chief of Staff, Zappos
“Freedom-Centered Leadership shouldn’t be a novel concept, but it’s unfortunately far from the norm. This book is a step toward changing that, one organization at a time, and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment in our history. This book is as timely and practical as it is conceptually profound.”
—Kent Thiry, former CEO and chairman of DaVita
“Imagine a workplace where people were trusted in their work and given the freedom to make their own decisions. In this groundbreaking book, the fabulous Traci Fenton explores organizations at the cutting edge of freedom in the workplace. It is a book that could transform your workplace.”
—Henry Stewart, Chief Happiness Officer, Happy, and author of The Happy Manifesto
“Traci Fenton has had the courage of being firm on freedom, even before it was popular, and I am very happy she penned Freedom at Work to document her journey. She’s been a positive influence for me and many, many people and with this book she’ll inspire even more. Freedom and democracy never made it past the front door of businesses but the time has come to breach that barrier. This is a must-read, a guide to a healthier and sustainable future.”
—Matt Perez, cofounder of Nearsoft and author of Radical Companies
“Democracy at work does not mean ‘one person, one vote.’ It means that those in an organization have a significant say in how they work, when they work, and the conditions in which they work. This releases enormous energy and generates engagement. It makes the workplace better and more productive. Traci is a pioneer in this field and her book is full of examples that can be idea starters for any company.”
—Srikumar Rao, TED speaker and CEO of The Rao Institute
“Rarely do we ever see the power of a person fully alive, and even more rare is an organization pushing the boundaries of human potential. Freedom-centred leadership is the key to unlocking the power in an organisation and Freedom at Work is the guidebook to success. Traci’s insight has been inspiring leaders for decades and this book will brighten the eyes of those around them. We have implemented Freedom at Work principles when building our company which has enabled us to attract brilliant people and grow our value.”
—Mark Dowds, founder and CEO of Responsible
“Freedom at Work proves that smart and soulful ways to run an enterprise are not competing demands, they are complementary energies towards sustainable success. Traci Fenton gracefully tells the stories, crafts the models, and shares the practices that matter. This is the future of work.”
—Perry Timms, founder and Chief Energy Officer of PTHR, author of Transformational HR, and included in the 2017 HR Magazine “HR Most Influential List”
“Traci Fenton makes a powerful argument, backed by research and common sense, that the workplace status quo needs to change—now. It is bad for workers, managers, society, or even the bottom line. Bringing freedom and democracy into the workplace is both long overdue and more practical than you think. Thankfully, Ms. Fenton also lays down a clear path—applicable in any workplace—of how to start the journey and stay the course.”
—Rodney North, host of the Why Worker Co-ops podcast and former vice chair of Equal Exchange
“In Freedom at Work, WorldBlu founder and author Traci Fenton carefully marshals direct evidence, personal experience, and scholarship to build an irrefutable case for organizational democracy. She lays out a meticulous case, informed by history, philosophy, and a raft of compelling stories. Her jury of readers will be hard-pressed to not find in favor of Freedom at Work.”
—Doug Kirkpatrick, founder and CEO of D'Artagnan Advisors and author of The No-Limits Enterprise
“For too long, workplaces have frustrated, constrained, and limited their most precious resource. Traci Fenton, a Thinkers50 Radar thinker, makes a compelling and practical case for a workplace revolution, one which puts people center stage and unleashes their potential, a revolution which sets them free and reinvents their organizations along the way.”
—Stuart Crainer, cofounder of Thinkers50