Exercising Our Freedom and Intelligence: Part 4

Freedom and Intelligence 4Embracing the principle and practice of freedom as non-domination marks the beginning of a learning process (Pettit, 2014). As noted previously, freedom as non-domination implies that people are empowered and have control over their direction in life, both as individuals and as part of a team. Theory and research in psychology highlights the importance of being in control.

For example, The Lifespan Theory of Control states that people are motivated to maintain primary control; that is, control over the environment(Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995; Heckhausen, Wrosch, & Schulz, 2010). It is argued that primary control is the goal that shapes all other goals. Primary control drives skill development, and successful primary control brings satisfaction. However, to the extent that control over the environment implies control over other living things, and control over other people, then control gets conflated with power and research in psychology highlights the challenges associated with being in possession of power.

The ideal of freedom as non-domination highlights the potential for shared power and shared control, and collective leadership in response to societal problems. In her book, The Art of Leading Collectively: Co-Creating a Sustainable, Socially Just Future, Petra Kuenkel highlights a range of principles and practices that resonate with Pettit’s moral and political philosophy, and his principle of freedom as non-domination. Kuenkel presents a collective leadership compass that orients advocates of collective leadership to some of the key tasks and challenges associated with sharing power. Central themes include humanity (e.g., embracing the perspective of others; mindfully deepening our awareness of reality in all aspects; integrating personal and professional aspirations); engagement(e.g., fostering cohesion and building networks; building step-by-step and structured engagement with others; driving joint implementation and delivery of results); collective intelligence (e.g., attending to the structure and quality of conversations; fostering diversity of ideas and perspectives; developing cycles of reflection and action); innovation (e.g., nourishing creativity; pursuing mastery and growth of knowledge; remaining open to change, moving through crises, and cultivating risk-taking); future possibilities (e.g., focusing on potential or opportunities and driving change for the better; inspiring passion and options for change; committing, focusing and following through to measure progress); and wholeness (e.g., connecting with ourselves, one another, and a larger context; enhancing one another’s strengths; and using our gifts, assets, and capacities to make a difference toward a sustainable future).

Kuenkel describes a number of case studies illustrating how organisational leaders have used the compass to reorient their work practices. The case studies illustrate the intensive learning process involved in efforts to reshape personal and organisational behaviour to better align with the collective leadership compass. While the cases highlight the challenges and rewards for those who follow the path of collective leadership, the initial step in each case involved relinquishing power as is it often conceived of in traditional, hierarchical organisations where dominance and the exercise of power is the norm. Collective leadership and power sharing practices are part of a slow process of personal and interpersonal development: these practices need to be cultivated and are rarely a given in an organisational context. However, in the absence of a collective ethos, in the absence of the guiding principle of freedom as non-domination, power can have a variety of negative consequences.

As noted previously, we need to build an infrastructure to support our collective intelligence. Importing collective intelligence methods and calling upon group facilitators at critical junctures may provide a useful starting point, but a more ambitious effort involves embedding collective intelligence into our practices in education, social science, and governance. Embracing broadly significant principles, such as the principle of freedom as non-domination and principles of democracy and collective leadership, provide a useful starting point as they generalize across contexts where collective intelligence is applied to address societal problems. Also, perceiving societal problems as a system of problems allows us to move beyond disciplinary boundaries in our thinking about these problems and propose applied social science methods that draw upon broad cross-disciplinary knowledge and diverse perspectives of key stakeholders in understanding and working to resolve societal problems. This was central to the vision of John Warfield when he developed his methodology, Interactive Management.

In his book, Societal Systems: Planning, Policy and Complexity, John Warfield (1976), motivated by a concern for societal systems and our ability to resolve societal problems, focused on methods for coping with complexity and for working collectively to resolve societal problems. Warfield notes that the recognition of problems rests partly on current perceptions and values and it is only in the last 200 years that we have become widely conscious of our own societies and the larger environment of which they are a part. He notes that our historical sense of crisis and the relatively terrible state of our current situation needs to be placed within historical context. As others have suggested, the current state of the world may, in certain respects, not be as terrible as is often assumed – for example, by reference to violent deaths, at least, we may be less violent than we were in the past (Pinker, 2011). At the same time, widespread legitimation and recognition of problems is needed if we are to mobilize political action and develop and implement action plans in response to what we perceived as shared problems. This implies that we draw upon the knowledge accumulated across all relevant disciplines and import the expertise of content specialists when working with stakeholders as part of a team. This team should address the societal problem directly with the support of a facilitation sub-team who provide assistance in the use of collective intelligence methodologies that help the team develop an understanding of the issue they face.

Warfield notes that understanding societal problems always involves an effort to identify how problems in the problem situation interact. This requirement to understand the situation is the same for societal problems that operate on a large scale, such as international peace keeping or national well-being, and for societal problems that operate on an apparently smaller scale, such as improving education in a local school. Failure to recognise potential interactions between problems in the problem situation, and deriving action plans and policies from simple models that neglect these interactions, can result in unexpected and often undesirable outcomes and precludes action that could be very beneficial.

At the same time, in order for a team to be able to work with systems models, the models need to describe problems using language and graphics that are open to comprehension and that can form the basis for coherent plans and policies. Warfield critiques approaches to system modelling that are exclusively mathematical and abstract, and not the result of collective intelligence. For example, Forrester’s original World Model (1973) included 58 elements, 81 pair relations, and complex mathematical interdependencies. However, as noted by Warfield (1976):

1. The model is quantitative, but includes many unstated qualitative assumptions.
2. The model is not the product of collective intelligence, multi-disciplinary group interaction and consensus-building and it is not presented in a way that can be readily understood by the public.
3. Many solutions can be generated depending on what assumptions are entered in a particular computer run.
4. Any decisions and solutions anticipated as a consequence of belief in the validity of the model would involve many individuals, groups, and organizations to implement solutions.

Societal problems cannot be solved in the same sense as arithmetic problems are solved. Working to resolve societal problems involves learning and the development of sufficient understand as to the nature of the problem and effectively using this understanding to bring about some change that diminishes the perceived intensity of the problem, without creating other problems in the process. Mathematics and quantification can be useful in this process, but they need to be used in a way that promotes understanding and effective action within the team, and within society. Importantly, quantification relevant to societal problem can be derived from many disciplines, including social and behavioural science. Indeed, social and behavioural science research, says Warfield, needs to be communicated outside of scholarly journals such that knowledge is accessible and can be drawn upon by societal problem solvers and decision-makers, including politicians, educators, social workers, and citizens in general. The challenge is to make knowledge accessible and open to synthesis across disciplines, says Warfield, such that critical reasoning and reflection is possible when a team comes together to address a societal problem and develop systems models that help them to understand how aspects of the problem relate to one another.

The interaction of multi-disciplinary content experts and social and political stakeholders further helps the group to understand how options and proposed solutions in response to the problem entail interactions between different agencies and institutions that will help to implement solutions. Planning an effective collective intelligence session involves careful consideration as regards the team members needed to address the societal problem. While the team does not need to include ‘everyone’ who has a vested interest in the problem, it should include a range of people who can generate a sufficient understanding as to the nature of the problem and use this understanding to bring about some change that diminishes the perceived intensity of the problem. In so doing, they develop an understanding of the problem that is transparent and can be communicated with the wider stakeholder, content specialist, and implementation group, both for validation and revision, and work iteratively until an agreed action plan is developed – a plan that the team is instrumental in driving forward and seeing through.

Naturally, any such plan implies projected futures that are probabilistic and deliberations as regards proposed alternatives will depend on our best judgement as regards the level of uncertainty, risks, and expected value of specific actions. However, this is inevitable regardless of any method we use – indeed, the future is uncertain but this should not prevent us from bringing to bear the best of our knowledge and intelligence in seeking to understand societal problems and actions that help to resolve these problems. Any method we use to support our thinking in these situations should be evaluated in light of the results it achieves.


Forrester, J. W. (1973). World Dynamics. Portland, OR: Productivity Press.
Heckhausen, J., & Schulz, R. (1995). A Life-Span Theory of Control. Psychological Review, 102(2), 284-304.

Heckhausen, J., Wrosch, C., & Schulz, R. (2010). A motivational theory of life-span development. Psychol Rev, 117(1), 32-60.

Pettit, P. (2014). Just freedom : a moral compass for a complex world (1st Edition. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.

Kuenkel, P. (2016). The Art of Leading Collectively: Co-Creating a Sustainable, Socially Just Future. Chelsea Green.

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