“True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.” — Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: 13

Jim Collins, renowned author of two best-sellers (Built to Last and Good to Great), offers simple but profound insights into leadership. But this one little throwaway line in his small monograph that accompanies Good to Great drives deep to the heart of true leadership.

good-to-great-and-social-sectorsMany of us have heard that “a leader who looks back and sees nobody following is merely taking a walk.” It brings a smile to the face because we can visualize the rather comical scenario. Many self-proclaimed leaders find themselves oddly alone. But Collins’ statement adds a different dimension. It’s not just “Are there followers?” but “Do the followers have true freedom?”

Families (yes, families), businesses, churches, and non-profit organizations can all be set up as mini-dictatorships. Dad’s word must never be challenged. The boss’s decision is final. The pastor’s authority must not be questioned. Of course, some kids leave home, some employees quit, and some church staff and members move to other congregations. But those who stay may feel the oppression of the dictatorship.

Is Jim Collins correct? Is one of the marks of true leadership, the true freedom of the follower? When followers are not coerced, manipulated, or forced in any way to comply?

The power to fire or excommunicate someone can muddy these waters. At times, compliance can look like freedom of choice when it’s not. Fear will drive many of us to smile and fall in line.

As leaders, how do we genuinely build a culture of freedom?

Of course, our own fears and insecurities may drive us towards heavy-handedness; threats, belittling, and harsh discipline. But controlling others and leading others are two very different matters.

If Collins is correct, and I suspect that he is, what might you do this week to nurture an authentic culture of freedom in your families and other settings of leadership?

David Timms serves as Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University.