A practical guide to taking responsibility and improving your process of working
Around this time of year, Americans celebrate freedom. This freedom comes with the ability to live the lifestyle you like, practice religious freedom, and practice freedom of speech. However, when working for an organization or a business, freedom is a bit different. Leading a team is rewarding many ways. However, answering to someone else, whether top-level leadership, investors, customers, or team members often feels limiting and draining. Meeting expectations can feel all-consuming and exhausting. It’s easy to lose sight of the benefits of leading a team when it feels like you have lost your freedom to authority or to the demands of the job.
Before we dive into just how you can find more freedom as a leader, let’s clarify: What is freedom, really? Freedom is the ability to choose how to spend your time and where to place your awareness. Freedom at work essentially means that you are enjoying your focus points and how you are spending your time. Ideally, it means that you feel like there is no other place you’d rather be or way you’d rather be spending your working hours. The content, the impact, the people you work with, the environment, and the schedule all influence your ability to feel free.
Freedom is the ability to choose how to spend your time and where to place your awareness.
Many people assume that freedom means letting go of it all to fly solo, with no responsibilities. Freedom does not mean that you have no responsibilities or challenges. Finding freedom is about finding a work focus, context, and process that allows you to place your awareness and spend your time as you’d like. Making a meaningful impact requires responsibility and hard work. With great power comes great responsibility. I once worked with an executive in a large corporation who said, “I feel free and successful when I am enjoying how I’m spending my days. That doesn’t mean that I enjoy every single thing I have to do, but every single thing I do is productive toward the bigger vision of my freedom.” Sometimes our optimal version of freedom is largely enjoying the process and results of what we do, even if some things are tedious stepping-stones inherent in the process due to factors outside our immediate control.
Even though people often say they wish they had the luxury of dropping their work and launching into early retirement, most of us actually like working. When given the chance to retire, many people choose not to. Whether the content is fascinating, the people are enjoyable to work with, the structure is supportive, or the environment is enjoyable, most people do the specific work they do for some reason beyond just a paycheck. Work often makes us feel freer than not working because it gives us engaging focus points and purpose for our time.
Though the benefits of working often outweigh the cons, most leaders do crave more freedom. There is almost always a gap between where our focus and time is spent and where we wish it were spent. Some leaders crave more time to focus on strategy or research. Some crave more personal time. Given a never-ending workflow and fast-paced business environment, it’s hard to find sustainable freedom.
It’s not always the job. Sometimes, it’s how you’re doing the job. By shifting how you work, you can often find more freedom! Here are 7 ways to find more freedom as a leader at work. Use this practical guidance to refine your work scope, optimize your processes, and open more time and focus for new possibility.
1. Clean up: Optimize Your Team’s Work Scope
The first way to open more time and focus is to optimize your team’s work scope. Many leaders don’t realize there are unnecessary tasks or cumbersome, outdated processes going on everyday that are eating away valuable time and focus. When was the last time you looked closely at all the tasks and projects your team is working on? When was the last time you compared that to what your core mission is and what you’re really responsible for?
Given the ongoing workflow and day-to-day activity, it’s hard to put aside the time to take a closer look at what your team is a working on and how time is spent. However, it’s worth it! Start with yourself: Take a closer look at how you spend your time each day and take an inventory of your ongoing tasks and current projects. Then, do the same for each team member. Take a full inventory of your team’s tasks and projects. Zoom out to look at the tean’s work scope as a whole. You may find that you can easily eliminate redundant or unnecessary tasks, reporioritize, and open time for more meaningful work.
2. Distribute Intentionally: Delegate based on strengths, interests, and time
Many times, leaders delegate tasks according to who is readily available or to whom they assume can do the job. Instead, if a new project arises, first think about whom would be most interested in working on it. Then, consider if that person also has the strengths and skills to accomplish the task. Finally, it’s important to know what each team member is working on, so that you delegate new work to some who can finish according to timeline expectations.
When you and your team members can work on the tasks and projects you each find truly engaging, the work will feel more effortless and you’ll enjoy more freedom. People will take more ownership of their work. You’ll experience higher team morale, productivity, and dedication when people work on things they truly enjoy and can meet realistic timeline expectations.
3. Cross-Train: Have back-ups for everything
For leaders seeking freedom, having team support is key. Some people think that being the only one capable of doing a certain task or process makes them indispensable. It feels good to be needed. However, this limits freedom for the individual and also puts the team’s work at risk. Have you ever wanted to go on vacation and had to train someone last minute on how to do your weekly tasks? Or, worse, have you had to login from vacation to do the work? Yikes.
To enjoy freedom and peace of mind, make sure every essential task on your team has a primary and a secondary (backup) assignment. Train team members on your tasks as well so that you have the freedom to take vacation when you need to as well. This will give you and your team members more freedom to enjoy time off and to learn new things from each other.
4. Train Successors: Prepare team members for the next level
When someone leaves the team, chaos and panic strike if she is the only one capable of doing an essential task or if she holds critical tribal knowledge. As the leader, you will also feel limited and stuck if you find a new opportunity but have no one that is ready to take over your position. Putting aside the time to cross-train has the two-fold benefit of providing more freedom in the present and the future.
Make sure that you gradually train top-performing team members on your essential tasks and your thought process so that if you do transition to a new role or company, you can do so without last-minute chaos, without having to prolong your notice period, and without burdening your team members. This will provide peace of mind and an ability to freely move without feeling like you are handcuffed to one role or one organization.
5. Work with people that support your freedom
For leaders, a lot of time and is spent on relationship building with your team, peers, and partners. Therefore, it’s important to choose a company where the people fuel your freedom. People that fuel your freedom respect your time and they don’t waste it. People that fuel your freedom talk with you about interesting, engaging work topics that are positive or productive. They don’t talk about office politics or talk negatively about others. Ask yourself: Do you like spending time with the people you work with? Do you like focusing on their needs? Do you enjoy collaborating with them?
One thing you have even more control over is your team. You can hire people that you vibe with and enjoy working with in order to enjoy your time at work more. What are the essential qualities of people you enjoy working with? What are key qualities that make someone a good collaborator? Look for people with those qualities in order to enhance your day-to-day freedom at work. Lead by example in showing your team members how to behave, talk, and work in order to fuel individual and collective freedom.
6. Fuel other people’s freedom
On the other hand, you also want to make others feel free — yes, even at work! Again, this doesn’t mean freeing them of all responsibilities; it means helping them to place their focus on content they enjoy and spend their time in a way they enjoy. At work, some specific examples of this would be to use other people’s time carefully in meetings. It means using a positive tone so that people want to spend time with you and want to read your e-mails. It means giving team members tasks and projects that they largely enjoy doing.
The good news is that when you help others find more freedom, they help you and want you to succeed in return. For the advanced leader, a question to ask yourself even in a challenging conversation is: How can I help this person find more freedom? This often results in helping them work through a frustrating problem, helping them prioritize, or providing more clarity. This is compassion.
7. Know what your freedom vision looks like
This is a tip for the most advanced leaders. So far, the tips have been about cleaning up your work scope and finding a better version of your leadership experience. This one is about thinking big, outside the box. For this one, detach from your title at work and your current responsibilities. Answer this: If you could place your focus on anything, what would it be? What would you be working on? Now answer this: If you had your days open to spend, just as you like, how would you spend your time? What would a typical day schedule look like?
You may at first hesitate at the first question — still answer it! Write something down. Maybe your freedom is just as you’re spending your days now. Maybe you need to make a few tweaks to your process. Maybe you need to shift to a totally different line of work or transition to a different work culture. To the second question, you might respond that you’d like to go on a trip around the word or have a never-ending staycation at home. Pause to think a little more realistically. Maybe you already know. The real answer probably is not to never work again. There is most definitely a mission or a project that would captivate your focus and allow you spend your days just as you’d like. Mabe it already exists or maybe you need to create it. It takes time to foster and outline your vision of freedom, especially when you’re used to taking direction from others. However, it’s deeply rewarding when you do the self-study work and connect with your true vision of freedom.
Ultimately, to find freedom, find responsibility that feels like a purpose, not just another responsibility. When you find that purpose, the responsibilities of fulfilling that purpose naturally follow, and they don’t feel like responsibilities but callings. Once you find work that feel like purpose, take ownership of your work scope and the process of working in order to enjoy greater freedom along the way. With great power should come great purpose, joy, and connection, not just great responsibility. Continue your pursuit of freedom to enjoy the process and the results of your work.
Thanks for reading!
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Photography by Jordan P. photography.