Finding agency

The first few moves of a chess game give the player almost unlimited freedom. There are countless legal moves, and nothing to constrain the choices that a player makes among them.

But as we add leverage to our culture and our organizations, the choices aren’t as easy.

Jerry Garcia couldn’t easily change the Grateful Dead’s touring regime, even if he wanted to. With a payroll of nearly 100 people, the organization needed to be on the road, playing ever bigger venues, to keep the machine moving. The same feels true for countless situations involving countries, organizations (big and small) and even individuals in a system.

The high school principal might be in charge of the school, but their degrees of freedom aren’t unlimited.

And one reason is that freedom and agency aren’t the same thing.

Freedom of choice implies that the repercussions of any given choice are mild. Freedom without responsibility feels like the goal.

But in fact, agency with leverage only works because it’s so difficult and comes with so much responsibility. The struggling small business owner can shut down a division, sell an asset or part ways with a partner. It’s not easy, it feels painful and fraught, but it’s still possible.

The easiest option is to imagine that we have no difficult options.

We often do.