Freedom Inc.

The culture of freedom works–and Freedom, Inc. reveals the secrets of a successful business paradigm based on a trusting, nonhierarchical, liberated environment.
The visionary leaders profiled here performed near-miracles in driving their companies to unheard-of levels of success, often from unlikely or disheartening beginnings. Businesses as diverse as insurance company USAA, winemaker Sea Smoke Cellars, Gore & Associates, advertising agency The Richards Group, Harley-Davidson, and Sun Hydraulics have had the insight and courage to challenge long-held management beliefs about human nature and employees–and radically depart from the traditional command-and-control structures, rules, and policies.

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Knowledge @ ESCP Europe

Organisational Behaviour

Freedom Inc. Or how to become a liberating leader


Isaac Getz, Professor, ESCP Europe

By Isaac Getz, Professor of Idea, Involvement, and Innovation Management at ESCP Europe.

Freedom Form Organizations are so successful and so unusual that to the thousands of people who visit them, these companies look like the realization of an utopia. They rise from disheartening beginnings or decades of bureaucratic stifling to unheard levels of success. Yet, despite phenomenal business results of initiative-freeing organizational environments in such companies as FAVI in France, SOL in Finland, or Gore in USA, attempts to imitate them often fail.

We describe the keys to the transformational leadership required to build such "Freedom Incs" - how the liberating leaders set their employees free to achieve the unprecedented results, and how their lessons can be applied to firms in every industry, of any size, anywhere in the world.

Presenting the results of research involving several dozen companies and their leaders, we show that, though radical, such initiative-freeing environments can and do succeed when leaders adopt a radically transformational, liberating style of leadership.

These CEOs’ companies prove that freedom is, above all else, the surest path to profit, innovation and growth.
But do these leaders have a road map? After four years of research, thought and debate, we have identified lessons for any company to use to their advantage.

Those lessons are:

1) Stop telling and start listening.

Then, remove all the other symbols and practices that prevent your people from feeling intrinsically equal.


2) Start openly and actively sharing your vision of the company so people will “own” it.

But don’t do this before step 1 because people who are not treated as equals will leave you alone with your vision.


3) Stop trying to motivate people.

That’s right. Instead, build an environment that allows people to grow and self-direct—and let them motivate themselves. If they understand the vision from Step 2, they’ll take care of the rest if only you let them.


4) Stay alert. To keep your company free, become the culture-keeper.

In this role, as liberating leader Bob Davids says, “one drop of urine in the soup is too much—and you can’t get it out.” The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.


These principles are universal, but each leader we studied had to apply them to their own unique set of circumstances—and you will too. In other words, our research cannot give you a formula for applying the above principles to any particular situation. Freedom is, after all, the enemy of formulas—if we knew, or you knew, every situation that would arise and how to deal with it, you would not need freedom. Or your employees for that matter. You’d have all the answers already.

If these lessons—though making sense—don’t look easy to apply, we would point to the analogy of dieting. Dieting is hard because the pleasures of consumption now are obvious to our senses, but all the ways in which we are damaging ourselves may be hidden from us in the heat of the moment.

Likewise, bureaucracy’s overbearing control of one’s people comes with all sorts of hidden costs— not just to your bottom line, but to the health of your company and the health of your employees.

Liberating Leadership: How the Initiative-Freeing Radical Organizational Form Has Been Successfully adopted"

Liberating Leadership: How the Initiative-Freeing Radical Organizational Form Has Been Successfully adopted"

This paper, based on the research for the Freedom, Inc. book won the annual Syntec Award for the best academic article published by a Professor of a French institution, in the category “Management, HR, Organization.” (more information about the Syntec Award)