I have taken the above quotation from American founding father, politician and orator Patrick Henry (1736-1799) from a speech that he made to the Virginia Convention in 1775.

He was obviously referring to personal, political and national freedom as he was a champion of the American Revolution and the fight for independence, but I believe that this phrase, maybe now more accurately worded as “Give me liberty or I will leave” has become a core requirement of today’s workforce, irrespective of age.

By Gwillhickers; CC-PD-Mark, Liberty, PD US Government; via Wikimedia Commons

By Gwillhickers; CC-PD-Mark, Liberty, PD US Government; via Wikimedia Commons

I have long believed that the role of a manager is not to tell people how to do things, but to tell them what needs to be done, and then give them the freedom, the tools and the support to enable them to do it. This belief grew in me as I realised that if you give people the opportunity to do great things most of them will seize the opportunity to do so.

This tenet gave me one of my greatest career challenges when I moved from Sydney to Singapore to set up the Regional headquarters of SAP Asia Pacific in 1997.

By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Young, educated Australians and New Zealanders generally do not need to be told that they have the freedom to decide things for themselves, that they should not be scared to try something new, to question things, to push the boundaries, and to not be scared to make some honest mistakes along the way. This was not the case in Asia, where the culture was much more hierarchical with much more top-down control. People would wait to be told what to do and how to do it, and as a result driving change was slow and ponderous.

As well, the concept that work was also meant to be fun was one that was hard to imbue in people, beyond the foreign managers and subject matter expert expats that worked in various parts of our organisation in the SAP Singapore Headquarters. Friday night drinks, after hours in the office, only really attracted the gweilos (white ghosts as we were called), until we also started serving a large variety of noodles and Asian food, when the locals would all turn up en-masse at 5.00pm, eat all the food and immediately leave, which defeated the whole purpose of a relaxed, stress-free end of the work week celebration with colleagues.

Author: ProjectManhattan (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: ProjectManhattan (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0; via Wikimedia Commons

Everything started to change when, after a few months, we had our first formal all-hands event for staff and their partners at the Shangri-la Hotel. It was a lavish, black tie dinner and dance event, which also included a large variety of winnable prizes (TVs, PCs, mobile phones, trips etc., all donated by our suppliers), and which would not be announced till midnight, thus ensuring that the locals would not automatically leave as soon as their meals had been consumed.

The theme was “James Bond” and after the dessert course waiters appeared and placed a large platter of small plastic water pistols on every table, which only generated lots of giggling. One young lady, a bit more adventurous than the rest, filled her pistol with water in the ladies restroom and then ran through the room indiscriminately squirting all within range, including me … the exalted Grand Poobah, Emperor, Member of the Board, President and CEO of the region. A deathly hush descended on the room, as everyone waited to see how I would react. I pushed my chair back from the table and rose to my full height, at the same time pulling a large pump-action water cannon (about 10 litre capacity) from under my seat, which I then emptied over this young colleague, drenching her till she looked as though she had just been dipped into the hotel pool.

Mayhem broke loose … when people finally left after 1.00am all 300 attendees were drenched, my driver made my wife and me sit on plastic rubbish bags for the drive home, we had to pay for the water damage to the carpet, and the company was permanently banned from ever having another function at this particular hotel.

But we had made people understand that they were free to have fun, that there were no sacred-cows and not any unassailable, unreachable management “heavies” … we were all just people with different jobs to do. Not quite “workplace democracy”, but at least the start of an environment that could allow people to build some workplace freedoms.

On the Monday morning following this event, I had called an all staff meeting.

My messages were all about freedom.

– No-one would get punished for making an honest mistake.
– I expected them to try new things and if we could get 6-7 of them right out of every 10 that we tried we would be way ahead of our competition.
– That we had to keep changing and growing and learning and getting smarter or we would not survive, and that they should change the titles on their business cards to “Change Agent”.
– That I expected them to do whatever they felt was needed at any time to help a customer fix an issue, rather than to consult a rule book or the terms of the customer contract.
– That I expected them to understand that while we would be fierce competitors externally, we would collaborate and always help each other to be successful internally.
– That I expected them to always question things that they felt didn’t make sense.
– That they would have the freedom to do their job their way.
– That whilst I was rejecting the suggestion in front of me of having dress-down Fridays, I was recommending that people should dress in a way that they felt was appropriate to their job, and that in Singapore this rarely constituted a suit, though I did not like jeans and sneakers in the office (note that I didn’t ban them, I just said that I didn’t like them … it was enough), and that all I needed was for them to dress in a way that was a credit to themselves, their colleagues, the company and our customers.
– That I would work at all times with the regional executive team and all the country management teams to ensure that these values would be at the core of the way we all lived our work lives.

And finally …. That I preferred to be called “Les” rather than “Mr. Hayman”, and similarly with all the rest of those in management roles, who all preferred to not be called “Mr. or Ma’am”.

American President Theodore Roosevelt (1882-1945) summed it up when he said “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

By John Singer Sargent; CC-PD-Mark; via Wikimedia Commons

By John Singer Sargent; CC-PD-Mark; via Wikimedia Commons



  1. I always enjoy your posts, but this one really resonated with me. Although I lead a team in Australia, they have previously been given the implicit (or maybe explicit) message that initiative wasn’t necessarily a good thing. At our management meeting today we were just talking about how to encourage a culture of taking initiative. Water pistols could be fun!

  2. Sean Liberty says:

    Well that woke me up this morning..had me worried for a second when I saw the title of this weeks blog previewed in my email! As always an enjoyable read (once I’d got over the shock)

  3. one of your best posts ever. I completely agree: letting your employees have the freedom to do their best means they will.

  4. Tom says:

    I had a similar challenge when teaching English to university students in Japan in the ’60’s. They all wrote well but refused to volunteer to answer questions or single themselves out in any way. Finally had to organize them into groups and appoint different group spokes persons each day to get any participation. It was avery tough slog!

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