“If we could change a society like we can change the position of the furniture in a house, it would be fantastic,” said the educator Paulo Freire in a 1987 address. “It would just be a question of muscular power. But history is not like this.”
Freire believed educators were particularly burdened by the challenges of change, because many of us are “much more traditional and fear the students’ possibilities more than they should. They could believe much more in the abilities of the students, of the people, but they are … conditioned by a very old fear, which is the fear of freedom.”
What unnerves us most about freedom, I believe, is its unpredictability and capacity for disorder. In the classroom, this fear of the unknown has misled many of us into thinking that the relationship between freedom and structure is an either/or proposition. But there’s a difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian, a point Freire clarifies:
The teacher has to teach, to experience, to demonstrate authority and the student has to experience freedom in relation to the teacher’s authority. The authority of the teacher is absolutely necessary for the development of the freedom of the students, but if the authority of the teacher goes beyond the limits authority has to have in relation to the students’ freedom, then we no longer have authority. We no longer have freedom.We have authoritarianism.
Freire recognized the creative tension that exists between individual freedom and group structure. Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond has written about it as well. “The middle ground between permissiveness and authoritarianism,” she says in The Right to Learn, “is authoritative practice. Authoritative treatment sets limits and consequences within a context that fosters dialogue, explicit teaching about how to assume responsibility, and democratic decision-making.”
This distinction between authoritative and authoritarian practice is particularly resonant in the teacher-student dynamic (although it’s central to all relationships, both personal and professional). Its implications are clear: the solution is not to choose between freedom and structure, but to strike the right balance between the two.
At this point, the Five Freedoms Project’s fifth foundation of leadership – letting a new, co-created vision come naturally into being – becomes essential. We know, for example, that transformational leaders help people develop clarity about themselves and the inner place from which they operate, and create the conditions that support people’s efforts to fulfill their potential. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that to create such a climate, the leader must essentially “let go” of the reins. But there’s a difference between letting go of one’s responsibility, which is an abdication of leadership, and letting go of old mental models and habits, which we must do to create the space that will allow new ways of seeing and thinking come into being.
The challenge of 21st century leadership, then, involves knowing which old habits and ideas we must “let go” of so that new habits and ideas can emerge. That process will always involve some uncertainty and discomfort. Indeed, allowing yourself to be uncertain of what will emerge is the threshold we must pass through for new ways of being to take root. As MIT professor Otto Scharmer explains in Theory U,
Letting go and surrendering can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. Letting go concerns the opening process, the removal of barriers and junk in one’s way, and surrendering is moving into the resulting opening. … [When this happens] we see the same fundamental happening: the arrival, the beginning birth, and the coming into being of a new self, the essential or authentic self that connects us with who we really are.
Old ways of thinking and managing that no longer serve us are things we should let go. And developing the capacity to let those ideas go is precisely what allows for the possibility of something new to emerge. If we as leaders are committed to less hierarchical organizations and a better balance between individual freedom and group structure, we must therefore trust the processes we put in place and resist the traditional tendency to have a vividly preconceived notion of what the end result will look like. It’s about a shared vision, after all.
As Robert Greenleaf observes in his classic treatise, The Servant as Leader, “the freer the institution and the more scope for autonomy and initiative given to individuals … the more important is the role of the many informal leaders among all constituencies: students, faculty, administration.”
To download a PDF of the Prologue from the book American Schools, click here.
American Schools is available for purchase from Amazon.