Freedom is Accountability

Part One

Kris Kristofferson was wrong. Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose. That is, unless what you have to lose are your fears and inhibitions. Freedom is Accountability.

A handful of months ago (circa 2015) my accounting firm was contacted by a woman asking for an opportunity to do an internship with us. For the sake of anonymity, we’re going to call her C. We had a phone interview with C, getting deep into our corporate culture, vision, and other important discussions the same way that we would with any new member of our team. C sounded very excited to dive in and learn from us.

It turned out that she was lying.

We have had interns in the past. It is a fun chance to help someone get into the profession on the right foot. We don’t gain anything from having interns except for the opportunity to learn and grow together. It is similar to hosting an exchange student in our home. It is a charitable act on our part, as we invest a great deal of time, energy, and resources. The reward is that it’s supposed to feel good. We volunteer to make the world a better place, bringing our industry to the next level. It never occurred to us that someone would abuse our hospitality in that situation.

C spent two full months with us, and in that time there were only a few times that she showed her true colors. The first was early on when there was a confrontation over her lack of follow-through on an assignment. Then it did not come up again until the very end, when she told us that she had no interest in learning anything from us. It turned out that she was only there because she needed the internship to finish the degree it had taken her 8 years to complete. She had been actively lying about her intentions and interests the entire time. She had been telling us what she thought we wanted to hear so that she could get a passing grade and be on her way. It almost worked.


As C was finishing her final week with us, her self-destructive habits that had defeated her in obtaining her degree up to that point firmly took hold again. She chose to skip out on an opportunity to participate in a full day intensive mastermind course that I was teaching. I was seeing this activity as the equivalent to her final exam for the internship. It was a chance to work with other business owners on a deep, vulnerable, human level to focus on making leaps and bounds of personal and professional growth. It was the culmination of the learning opportunity we had offered, and she chose not to show up.

In the end, she wasn’t there because she wasn’t meant to be. She wasn’t ready for growth of any kind, and she would have detracted from the experience for those present. It was a great class, and she really missed out.

Her loss.

With the choice to skip this seminar, her carefully crafted veneer was cracked. I could see that there were big things that she wasn’t bringing to the table with us. I asked her about it, and the truth started to come out. It came out with venom. C told me that she was only here to finish her degree. She admitted that she hated her teachers and thought they were worthless. This was a big part of the reason why school had taken her 8 years. She also told me that I was a fake who had nothing of value to offer her.

Hindsight being what it is, I realize now that there was probably nothing I could do to help her. She told me straight out that she believed that authority figures were inherently evil, and that she saw me in a position of authority. My big mistake was that I felt like I had a responsibility to her, despite the fact that she had already fully negated the fundamental values of our commitments to each other. Rather than just booting her out the door, I gave her a choice. This choice led to several months of hard lessons and soul searching. Then I finally found the lessons that I needed from C.

I found the missing piece… and the missing peace.

A couple of weeks ago I was taking a webinar on The Top 10 Business Myths, presented by Ed Kless through CPA Academy. It was a fantastic webinar. If you are not already familiar with Ed Kless and Ron Baker, be sure to check out The Soul of The Enterprise. It just so happened that my schedule lined up for me to take this webinar at over 300 miles per hour while soaring 30,000 feet above the ground. The wi-fi is not the greatest under those circumstances, especially while streaming a live webinar. The gems I collected between outages were so good, I had to follow up with Ed personally afterward to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

While all ten of Ed’s myths were fantastic, there was one myth that rose above the rest for me. It was that “Leadership is about changing others behavior.”  Ed presented the idea that freedom and accountability are the same thing. In order to be accountable, you must be free. In order to be free, you must be accountable.

“Leadership is confronting people with their freedom.”

When I heard those words come through my earbuds on the airplane, it was like a haze parting in my mind. Later, I asked Ed for more information about these ideas. He advised me to look up Peter Block’s book Freedom and Accountability at Work.

Ed took these ideas a step further, saying, “Compliance is a choice to be in slavery.”

If you don’t have freedom, you are a slave. We cannot get people to be accountable. We must choose it of our own free will. The difference between accountability and compliance is one of mindset.

Ed referred to Viktor Frankl’s quote from his book A Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

When I think of this, I picture William Wallace screaming “Freedom!” right before he dies at the end of Braveheart. No one can take away our ability to decide how we feel about the situation we are in. That choice is up to each of us. Who do you want to be? What mindset do you want to spend your life in?

Do you choose Freedom or Slavery?

...continue reading Part Two here...

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