When I was a child, my family tended to move house every few years. My mother hated hot, dry weather and loved the rainy days common in a coastal climate. My father hated dark, dreary days and wet weather and loved working outdoors year around in wide open spaces. So, we spent a great deal of time caravanning back and forth across the Cascades. At one point, we moved out into the middle of “wheat country” in north central Washington. In this community, family roots were deep and went back to the old country—generally Germany. And, there were certain farming families that functioned almost as a local nobility.
It was very common to be asked by one of the long-time residents there, “Who do you belong to?” This was your cue to cite your parentage in one of the locally known families. I’m so-and-so’s daughter. I’m a Sieg or a Dormaier.
This all seemed very odd to me. Though in the course of a very traditional upbringing a number of attempts had been made to impress on me that, particularly as a female in the world I was owned, I always saw myself as belonging to myself and responsible to and for myself first and foremost, though I might be descended from certain parents. Perhaps it was those wide open spaces wherein one is alone and self-reliant in the landscape.
This notion of belonging to oneself and accountable to oneself first and foremost I learned, many years later, was the concept of personal sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence is full of allusions to personal sovereignty.
Personal sovereignty is the notion that the individual has a moral and natural right to be the exclusive owner of her own body and life. It includes the notion that the individual has supreme authority and sovereignty over her own choices, without the interference of others (governing powers), provided she has not violated the rights of others. A corollary to this notion is that others also have personal sovereignty.
Personal sovereignty, taken together with the notion of integrity—discerning what is right; acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong—forms a powerful cocktail in the space of personal accountability. So, for instance, if we choose to go to work today for an employer under the constraints of that employer, we do so under the auspices of our personal sovereignty. We have the right to choose, and we choose to do as we do. Meanwhile, integrity causes us to be regularly considering whether our actions are right or wrong and to what degree. This includes how we do our work—not just that we do work in this or that organization or industry.
Organizations frequently constrain the employee/employer relationship such that the employee gives up some of her personal sovereignty in exchange for employment. I am reminded now, a number of years ago, while in one of my first customer facing project leadership roles, being counseled by the company’s human resources manager, “Where your values do not align with the company’s values go with the company’s values and decisions in your actions.” Not surprisingly, that employment relationship was not long-lived.
I’ve often seen this tendency to impinge on, rather than educate, employees about their personal sovereignty as a fool’s bargain that organizations make. Coercing employees to give up their personal sovereignty is frequently the beginning of the path to undermining both accountability and engagement in the workplace. Current common human resources practices, however, seem to encourage either the owner/owned notion of the employment relationship or the employee-as-victim-of-the-system model. Neither works well.
The realization of personal sovereignty is an evolutionary and, sometimes, arduous journey for employees today. However, standing fully in your own skin being fully owned by yourself is an experience worth having and develops an early warning system around compromised integrity and a love of personal accountability.
So, tell me, who do you belong to?