Sarah Anne Freiesleben

Agency Agency

A courageous account of stepping into the unknown. And how the Emerge Gathering 2021 fitted in.

Gathering 2021


I have recently been trolled for being privileged, told that my optics are great, and received a card in the mail that said I am “kicking ass and taking names”. I think it is time I set the record straight. I have quit my comfortable job (again) to do what I feel called to do. I am volunteering at a university, taking courses & attending conferences out of my pocket, not collecting money from the government, and doing a ton of work that is remunerated in bottles of wine to learn & make a name for myself. And, I am learning to be okay with it.

My first corporate exodus was in 2019, when I started my own company driven by the desire to help traditional companies run more successful projects. I had just spent 14 years working on projects that delivered results far removed from their original intention & was fed up with celebrating what felt like failure to me. Tired of drinking champagne and reading my colleagues’ success posts on LinkedIn, it felt wrong to me to brag about my role in disasters, even if I did pour my heart into trying to prevent them.

After 2 years and a pandemic, entrepreneurial success seemed not meant to be for me. I didn’t fit into the sneaker-wearing, 20-something start up world, and my offerings seemed too niche and unconventional to compete with big consulting companies. I met many top leaders who wanted to hire me, but eventually fell into the “you don’t get fired for hiring McKinsey” trap.

During this time, I met many people who were inspired by the leap I had taken and the work I was doing. Risk takers love a good risk story. But I also lost friends and was shamed for shirking my middle-aged responsibilities to provide my kids with a stable life. There were some who explicitly reminded me of this on a frequent basis, but I didn’t need their reminder. I had this narrative on permanent replay in my head, “After growing up in a family that struggled to put food on the table, how could I do this? Isn’t it time to settle into a comfortable job and do my duty to raise the next generation?”

Over the past years, something bigger than being annoyed about failing projects had grown in me — a burning desire to be part of building a better world. With the existential threat to humanity becoming more provable by the day, this also seemed like an important story for me to care about. And from a long-term perspective of taking care of my children, I knew that sitting around revising power point slides for leaders to eventually make decisions about projects that don’t matter was not really contributing to that.

For millennials this narrative is a no-brainer. Greta Thunberg’s “bla bla bla” speech doesn’t sound provocative, it sounds obvious. But for older generations, we know that this is not the first-time people have wanted to save the world. I had “We are the World” playing on repeat in my head for all of 1985. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking saving the world is a youthful, naïve desire, only to be grown out of when the reality of a mortgage and daily responsibilities creep in. It is also tempting to believe technology is going to be built by others to save us.

But in the short term, my kids needed shoes, and it was time to find a “real” job again. I tried to balance these narratives by finding a job with a sustainable innovation goal and strategy to disrupt themselves for the betterment of humanity. I jumped right into it and found that the lovely people in the company all really wanted to do these great things.

But something odd was happening. They were not doing them; rather, they were spending a lot of time talking about doing them. I couldn’t figure out if the goal was too big or the willingness to sacrifice was too small, but the systemic effect was paralysis. It was not the “fault” of anyone, and it would be an oversimplification to blame the leadership.

The leaders consoled themselves by reasoning that they were “in a transformation” and “people are just afraid of change”. Yet each person I met was itching to change but felt like their contribution potential was limited by the leadership. There seemed to be a systemic constraint that prevented these noble goals from manifesting. And that is when I started making my next big mistake. I started to try to convince them how to make systemic change.

The harder I tried to convince people who were part of the system to change the system, from within the system, the tighter the knot became. And suddenly, I felt like the knot was squeezing me. Spending lots of my time in the agile community, I found myself in a double bind that one day passionately exclaiming, “where can I exercise my human agency?”

It seemed to me that the very methods that were designed to free human agency, were inadvertently creating a vacuum for human agency, as people looked more and more to prescriptive actions to replace human discretion. I eventually had a panic attack, which was followed by heart palpitations, headaches, and nausea, and went on sick leave. Luckily, I live in Denmark where there is a standardized process for this.

It is a great thing that in Denmark stress is not taboo & people are encouraged to go on leave to get better. Companies work with you to help you slowly re-integrate back to work once you are well. But there is also something curious about the idea that we have a process to find a pathology in an individual who is quite possible having a perfectly natural response to an unnatural work environment. And even though the process does account for the work environment, the menu of stressful work environments is limited to overt problems, like being “overworked” or having “toxic co-workers”. It is not designed to handle the massive amount of humans outgrowing outdated organizational models.

Denmark prides itself on being a collaborative culture, with low hierarchy and freedom to be direct. But from the perspective of an outsider trying to fit in for the past 11 years, it seems like this cultural self-identification produces a shadow hierarchy and low agency collaboration, which is almost worse. Occasional taboos pose as authenticity to avoid real conflict and maintain a state of hygge. But for innovation, we need conflicting ideas to be let in. We need to collaborate with purpose, strive for collectively intelligent coherence, and use our beautiful human agency to act.

Medium and large organizations are missing the right kind of challenges that lead to innovation because they are distracted by the wrong kind of challenges. Most are full of projects and initiatives battling for budget and claiming resource constraints, while large amounts of perfectly skilled resources are sitting around waiting the leaders to figure out what they should spend their time on. Meanwhile, they bring in consulting houses to help them figure out how to do the work their staff is fully capable of doing, should a leader decide to let them step up to the challenge. Many leaders really do want to empower their employees and unleash their creativity. But they only do so in word.

The trendiest leadership strategies now talk about safe to fail culture, psychological safety, decentralized power, creativity, and courage. But almost none of them point to actions to adjust the constraints that invisibly make their words meaningless. And power without knowledge is an illusion. Giving responsibility without the freedom to act can be unhealthier than working in old fashioned hierarchies. People are suffering from being part of innovation theater and dogmatic agile teams. And the solution is not changing their mindset.

As soon as I was able to figure out that my stress was directly related to my work I resigned. My therapist told me that I have two options: change my values or leave. She also told me that it is hard to be me because I have high standards. This conversation somehow “gave me permission” to choose which of my values I prioritize higher: daily comfort or greater good. I made my choice. I am not “kicking ass and taking names”. I am just a woman who wants to use my one life doing something meaningful, who lives in a world where the multiple-choice boxes of skills haven’t been updated with mine.

The weekend after resigning I went to the Emerge Gathering in Berlin where around 240 people gathered to talk about the bigger “we”. The first night we were invited to an ecstatic dance where I stood on the sidelines, confessing to another uptight person that I believed my body still remembered the rules from the Christian church and could not surrender itself to the music, although it looked incredibly liberating. He asked if I was afraid. And I said, “no, but I seem to be lacking whatever the opposite of fear is.”

The next day, Indra Adnan spoke about human agency. She told us a story of tracing her roots in Indonesia as a young adult and finding a tribe who used the word “Ada” which meant “the opposite of fear”. I buckled in for what might have been the most inspiring hour of my life. Not because she gave a Ted Talk style performance, but because her words seemed crafted to be said to me in this moment in time. Reading back on my notes, I cannot recall how much of this was my sensemaking inspired by her words or her direct words, but this is what my notes say as a stream on consciousness:

…We need incubators, combine adjacent concepts. Focusing on leaders, but it should be the other way around…waiting for them to give agency, let people find agency, stop waiting for leaders to give it. I left because I matter.How — giving someone attention allows them to move into mattering. People feel like they don’t matter so the work they do doesn’t matter. “When I get status, I can start to work in that community,” we are waiting for someone to give it to us. Most people are just trying to get their emotional needs met. Build containers to help people get their needs met. Fed up with top-down information. What system is already there? Cosmo-localism is not a thing to be built, it is a thing to realize. Massive amount of trapped agency in organizations to be set free. Parallel Polis. Design your work around the new system, not the old…

I realized in this moment, that my lack of “Ada” was not just keeping me off the dance floor. It was keeping me from being effective with my purpose. I have been waiting for the people who thrive in the system I want to change to give me freedom to act. I have been trying to convince leaders to buy my services to help them change a system that is serving them, when I should just start working in the new system.

So, that is what I intend to do. I will build a collective, in Denmark, where humans can share their stories without being gaslighted, use their skills, find skills they didn’t know they have, feel psychologically safe, and release their agency for good. A place where outliers are welcome, unpolished speeches have an audience, boxes are made to be worked outside of, and mattering matters. It is not an anti-leadership space; it is a collective “we” space. An Agency Agency. And anyone who wants to belong, belongs.

If you feel called to be a part of shaping this and/or funding it, please reach out.
Words by Sarah Anne Freiesleben
My passion is shaping more holistic ecosystems so groups of people who want to bring change into the world can find the coherence & agency to be able to do so. I believe that we need to push the boundaries of our understanding in order to build the right solutions for the future & that co-learning & rich dialogue are key ingredients in doing that. Serving as a speaker, facilitator, coach, or consultant, my work aims to connect on a human level, in order to tap into a collective intelligence that is greater than the sum of individuals or fragments of knowledge.