Arbeit Macht Frei

The image above is the famous gate at the entrance to the Nazi work camp in Dachau, Germany.

A simple saying of “work makes one free” requires context to be properly understood.

In the context of Dachau, German Jews and other accused enemies of the Nazi state were emprisoned to work.

Work was not freedom. For many it meant death.

Arbeit Macht Frei is Nazi propaganda born of an ideology that twisted ideas for evil ends.

One person can say work makes one free, meaning that a purpose filled life expressed in work brings freedom. While another person sees the phrase granting legitimacy to the lie of slave labor camps because the slaves are a virus to society.

Propaganda is an extreme form of the abuse of language. It does operate across a spectrum where words are used to persuade and influence people to think and respond in particular ways. This is the power of marketing to the masses. We can see this in political cultures around the world. I see it in the business organizations where the ideology forms a kind of simulated perspective that may give the lie to the actual goings-on within the company. The question is how do you trust the words and messages of someone with whom you only know as a projected persona on a screen. The spectacle of communication as Guy Debord describes is that our communication and interaction is mediated through the power of images. The image of the Dachau gate empties words that in other circumstances stand for meaning, dignity and purpose.

It is this that I have seen throughout my career. It is the emptying of ideas of their meaning turning them into symbols of misinformation and rationalization. In the following selection from my book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative to Ignite Change, I look at the how I came to see a way to restore the importance of certain types of ideas for strengthening organizations and communities.

A Network of Ideas (2018*)

As I began to piece together the image of the Circle of Impact, I began to see a deeper reality unfolding. Certain values take prominence in organizational life. Integrity, efficiency, agility, alignment, and sustainability are some that have come to guide organizational leaders. The greater the clarity and practicality of these kinds of words, the stronger an organization can become. However, if you look at those words, they primarily represent conditions of the structural dimension of an organization.

I came to realize through working with leaders and their organizations that their problems were not just organizational. Within their teams and workforce, there were philosophical differences that made creating a culture of trust more difficult. I found that when the ideas that we identify as values were treated as secondary or optional aspects of the business, it also contributed to difficulties in how people worked together. Trust in relationships is a product of clarity of not just the why of the company, but the how. It doesn’t take long talking with people from any business to discover if they are clear about the company’s values and goals. When that clarity is missing, there is reticence on the part of employees to give their best each day.

The three dimensions of leadership of the Circle of Impact each have a simple goal for their practice. For the ideas dimen­sion, it is clarity. Are people clear about the guiding values of the company? Is the company’s purpose simple and practical? Does it describe the difference the company makes that matters? Is there a clear understanding of the impact the company aims to achieve? By impact, I am speaking about the changes that make a difference that matters in the products or services that the company produces, as well as how the company creates that impact in the marketplace. Finally, is there a clear sense of vision for how the whole of the company pursues the achievement of impact?

For the relationship dimension, the measure is trust. Is there a culture of respect in how people treat one another and how they are treated by the company? Trust is the product of a value culture of respect and integrity in the relational dimension. Trust is hard to build and easy to destroy. Is trust, therefore, a high priority for nourishment and sustainability?

For the structure dimension, the measure is agility, or the capacity for change within the context of constant transition. Agility is a much written about and discussed concept in busi­ness today. We, both our organizations and society on a global scale, are in the midst of a great transition. Organizations whose focus is preserving the legacy structure of their business will see change as an enemy and will not take the steps to develop their capacity for agility.

In the past, we’d take each dimension, and each of the words of our guiding ideology, and treat them separately. We’d have a values statement posted in the office. The company’s purpose would be its brand. The company’s vision would be a statement of where it wants to be in the future, and not about how we the people of the organization, working through the structure of the company, are going to achieve our goal for impact. And, lastly, over the course of two decades of consulting with organizations, I can count on one hand those who had a clear, compelling under­standing of the impact or change that they wanted to bring to their customers and society at large. The perspective was never about change, but about how the company would benefit from growth.

The world of the fragmented organization is coming to an end. Increasingly, if you can’t see how to integrate the whole of the business, then the business cannot compete. The Circle of Impact is a way of approaching the alignment of the company for impact. The other realization that I have had through this process of discovery is that you can’t start big. You must start small, and the best place to start is individually. 

The Ideas of Our Self-Perception

Three years later, and through the many conversations that I have had with people across the world, I am more convinced than ever about one simple truth. Confidence begins with our own self-awareness that gets qualified by the establishment of core values and a clear purpose for impact. The reason why more people don’t exhibit it is that they have never been really trained or taught how to develop their self-perception. Even all the self-development programs tend to focus on the emotional level of awareness. If we are only emotion with a range of socialized responses, then we never really know how to say No. I have a new book coming out soon on this very topic.

My point is that we need clarity of thought if we want to have a life that fulfills the emotions that we have for it. Emotions are kind of narcotic like. They can take us high and drop us low, and without knowing why. The touch point for understanding is realizing that every one of these emotion moments of elevation or descent are transitions in our lives. There is an old saying that when a person ceases to believe in something, like some value or God, they don’t believe in nothing, but will believe in anything.

The Ideas dimension provides a framework to create a clear perception of who we are and the value our lives have. These ideas are not projections of our inner emotional state. Instead they are ideas that become the foundation for how we make our choices. They not only create our inner emotional state, but guide how we make decisions  and act upon them. Here’s a brief description of the four ideas within the Circle of Impact dimension of ideas.

Values provide a foundation of understanding of who we are. Values may be shared by others. In this way, respect and trust, as pointed to above, help to produce relationships of mutual accountability. I wrote in my book, Where Did Trust Go? Restoring Authority and Accountability in Organizations the following.

Values are not throw-away words that are paraded out during a sales pitch or board strategic planning process. Values are not simply informational. They are foundational because they must be non-negotiable. If you are willing to negotiate on values, then expediency becomes the value that guides the business. Your values, then, become subject to the considerations of power.

If you want to overcome fear or aimlessness, and find clarity and direction for your life, then spend time considering what are the ideas that you are willing to stand for and sacrifice some benefit that would come from expediancy.

Purpose directs the focus of our lives outward. It is how our sense of identity gets expressed in the dailyness of life. If your purpose is unclear, you’ll find yourself trapped in a fear of failing to do everything you can to be accepted by people. You may not think that you do this. I can tell you the pressure to conform to other people’s expectations for us is real. It is how the tyranny of fear overwhelms us.

However, if you are clear about your values, then those values will help you identify your purpose. Then you will have the personal power to say NO! when you really need to do so.

Impact is a change that makes a difference that matters. If you were to ask the question, “What is the impact that I want from this situation?”, then you’d find yourself seeing change as a positive force in your life. Think of it this way. You and your spouse or partner are going to have a date tonight. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this time different? What is it that I want to change about our time together?” What does that look like to him or her, not to me, but to them? What is the difference that would matter to them? Discipline yourself to ask this simple question before any situation and you will begin to see things differently. And being able to see how we can act differently.

Vision is a misunderstood idea. I’ve known a lot of people who have shared with me their vision for their lives and the word. The idea of vision provided them a way of seeing the future. The limitation that I found was that it usually just their personal vision. If you look above at the Circle of Impact diagram, you’ll see that I have placed vision in the circle between the Relationship and the Structure dimensions. Why did I do that? It is because I am convinced that a vision needs to rise out of our relationships because it is focuses OUR attention on the impact that we TOGETHER can create through the structures of the organizations where we gather.

We live in a confusing time. We don’t know who to believe, who to trust, and how far do we can go in accommodating ourselves to their expectations. If you are clear about your values, your purpose, your shared vision, and the impact that you want to create, then the other things will gain a more balanced proportionality. This is a good place to be as we transition through a time of great change.

*  A Selection from Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change.


Dr. Ed Brenegar is a Leader for Leaders working with individuals, their teams, organizations and communities who find themselves at a point of transition. Ed has developed an innovative leadership model called, Circle of Impact, that clarifies what the impact of their life or the work of their organization can be. From this perspective, impact is the change that makes a difference that matters. Ed. for over 30 years, has inspired and equipped people and organizations to practice this fresh understanding of leadership. All leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. Everyone within an organization or a community can, therefore, practice leadership initiative. In so doing, they turn what were once leadership-starved organizations into leader-rich cultures that make a difference that matters.

Share This