When I ask “What does it mean to be free?” everyone seems to have a different answer, because each of us has different goals, different hungers. Honoring that difference is what makes democracy work, and democracy works because we negotiate differences rather than imposing one vision on everyone.
Great leaders are visionary enough to hold a space for many beliefs. Small leaders need to force people to conform to their core beliefs. In extreme cases, small leadership leads to terrorism and oppression.
Of course, small leaders make themselves feel like great leaders at every opportunity, which is their greatest weakness, although they imagine it’s their greatest strength. The problem is that the harder we hold to our core beliefs as the only way of thinking, the less flexibility we have as leaders, and the less freedom we allow our followers. Ultimately, the small space we hold for others will become our own prison.
I’m not arguing that leaders should abandon our core beliefs or be so flexible that we have no integrity. We must, however, cultivate the humility and self-awareness to be able to lead in dialogue with the beliefs of others. That’s democratic leadership.
Freedom is one of those terms we all assume is the same for every person, but it’s slippery, like leadership, authenticity, and other “common sense” cultural ideals. Any relationship always brings us in contact with each others’ core beliefs. The key is being conscious about those intersections, which may not always be comfortable or easy, but are always important. But that’s the paradox of democracy; as long as we hold a space for each others’ freedom, we can pursue our own.
July 4 is a good day to remember the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This explicit call for freedom demands that we respect each other, and requires us to negotiate our own happiness so that we don’t limit the freedom of others. Leaders can’t impose their vision and definitions on others, but they do have to hold a space for diversity with integrity.
This is probably the greatest challenge for leaders in a democracy. There’s something deep inside us that wants our core beliefs to be affirmed, a part of us deeply offended by disagreement with something we know to be real. As leaders, we need to be conscious about our beliefs so we can support dialogue and freedom to support ourselves and others. That’s what makes America great — and without it, we only grow smaller as a nation.