Degrees of Freedom

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘degrees of freedom’ recently. It’s a term I’ve used without thinking about it to mean the level of choice we have in our decision-making, usually in the context of leadership and organizational life. It turns out that there’s no real definition for that usage – that I can find anyway. Lots of definitions and descriptions exist for statistics, physics, mechanical engineering, and in organizations as a way of creating growth through sales. But if there’s a definition for the way I use it, I didn’t find it through Google. (All that to say, if anyone has one, I’d love to see it.)

Here’s a description from Google VR (Virtual Reality) that I think helps metaphorically, anyway.
“Degrees of freedom (DoF) refer to the number of basic ways a rigid object can move through 3D space. There are six total degrees of freedom. Three correspond to rotational movement around the x, y, and z axes, commonly termed pitch, yaw, and roll. The other three correspond to translational movement along those axes, which can be thought of as moving forward or backward, moving left or right, and moving up or down.”

If we take this idea of being able to move in multiple directions into our leadership work, it can help us begin to ask important questions. For example, where do we have the freedom to make choices and decisions and in what ways are we constrained? In what ways and which arenas are we limited in our choices and decisions? The answers to these types of questions help us define the degrees of freedom we have to move (decide, choose) within our work environments. Understanding this about ourselves and about our leaders is an important skill for leading within organizations and political environments.

For example, I continue to be bemused by calls from faculty and others in Texas and Florida who want their public university presidents to require masks and vaccinations for students and employees. In Texas, the governor issued an Executive Order prohibiting governmental entities in Texas from requiring masks on campus. This includes public universities. But school districts and counties are defying the mandate, why not you, President X?

This question tells me that the questioner doesn’t understand the degrees of freedom involved here. Counties judges and commissioners and school boards are elected directly. They are responsible to their local voters and there is time to make the case to them before the next election. They may lose, but right now they have some degrees of freedom within which to make difficult, potentially unpopular choices. And they may lose in court, but that’s not certain.

On the other hand, public university presidents report to Boards of Regents most, if not all, of whom have been appointed by the current governor. I don’t have any direct knowledge of this, but my experience tells me that the people who hired these presidents have let it be known (and it’s generally good practice) that we won’t defy the governor. If that is the case, then the presidents have very few degrees of freedom – two to be precise – don’t require masks or defy the people who can fire you.

In my experience though, most of the time, college and university administrators often have more degrees of freedom within which to act than they recognize or acknowledge. It’s a form of learned helplessness. We say we can’t do something because of the rules, when in fact the rules don’t address this issue at all. Or perhaps we see a need that is appropriate within the sphere of our authority and responsibility, but we don’t act because we’re waiting for permission we don’t actually need.

Understanding the possibilities and the limits of our authority and responsibility within the context of our organizations and the political realities is a critically important leadership skill. Leaders who fail at this leadership task, run the risk of losing their positions. Even worse, they run the risk of failing their organization by not acting when they should. Are you paying attention to your degrees of freedom?

Take care,


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