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This article comes from the Spring 2021 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Radical Leadership: Visioning Lines of Flight.”


Over the last year, NPQ has incubated Edge Leadership —a multi-sector social change R+D platform.

The ideas behind Edge Leadership build on the writings of design theorist Tony Fry.1 In his book Design as Politics, Fry explores the central role of design in helping us move from “the unsustainable state of the world” to a redirection based on asking demanding questions about sovereignty:

What does it take to remake sovereignty by design?

What is there to remake?

How does what is sovereign become sovereign?2

Fry describes this work as “designing from the edge”—peering out into an unpromised future.

I build on Fry’s work by explicitly naming this kind of work as edge leadership, and identifying five key characteristics:

  1. Personal sovereignty Edge leadership is acting from a sense of power
  2. Risk Edge leadership involves risk-taking
  3. Transformation The core edge leadership practice is transformation—understanding how it happens, in ourselves and others
  4. Connectivity Edge leaders identify and name connections between things, and build connections with others
  5. Multiplicity There are many ways to do things at the edge; we don’t have to agree on everything

Here we begin to examine personal sovereignty. 


While sovereignty is usually associated with political states—as the ability to protect geographical boundaries—it is originally associated with Christ and the Catholic Church. When the Holy Roman Empire lost its political and economic power and could no longer effectively challenge states, the state became sovereign.3

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which brought to an end the warring in Europe, is credited with articulating the concept of territorial sovereignty as clear borders that can be defended. It marks the transition from the Middle Ages to “a world of sovereign states.”4 But its critics argue that it does not provide “a clear statement of the principle of sovereignty”5—perhaps due to the reality that borders are sites of contestation, and therefore not only not always clear, but ever-changing.


We are just now beginning to see the articulation of sovereignty as personal. Sofya K. Nartova-Bochaver, professor at the Higher School of Economics/National Research University in Moscow, is one of the leading researchers of personal sovereignty. At a very high level, she defines personal sovereignty as “a trait that demonstrates the extent to which a person’s empirical Self is respected by his/her social environment.”6 Or, more simply, “the life space of the personality.”7

The concept of sovereignty as border control is carried into the personal. Here, a person is a “physical-territorial-existential integrity,”8 where she both has a personal sense of the world and projects herself into it. Thus, the boundary is between one’s sense of self and one’s environment.

Nartova-Bochaver explains,

The presence of a private, individual territory is, therefore, a very important component of the normal life activity of a living being in defense of its security. Real or anticipated change in the boundaries of an individual’s territory acts as a signal for specific behavior: either for the protection of the previous boundaries by means of aggressive-defensive behavior, or for flight to a place of greater security. The boundary between private and foreign territory is a zone of heightened psychological tension.9

It makes sense, then, that “the boundaries of a psychological space are defended by both physical and psychological means.”10 However, sovereignty isn’t just about defending one’s physical and psychological space.

American sociologist Thomas S. Henricks—whose work focuses on social stratification, race, and game theory—sees people as “orderly creatures who wish to ‘know’ the character of situations so that they can move through them in an efficient, confident, and morally justified way.”11

The central role of interactions and relationships cannot be overstated.

Henricks writes, “human experience is the awareness that one is involved in ‘relationships’ …, and this involvement includes a judgment about one’s ‘standing’ in these relationships. If people use these interactions or relationships to acquire what they do not have, they produce a society in which relationships are in continual tension and subject to change.”12

Nartova-Bochaver adds that in times like these of overpopulation and environmental challenges, people are more prone to both have to take others into account and protect their identities.13

As she delves in, she defines personal sovereignty as:

  1. a person’s ability to protect his/her psychological space
  2. a balance between a person’s needs and the needs of other people
  3. the condition of personal boundaries
  4. a system of explicit and implicit rules regulating relationships between people14

This is rigorous balancing work that requires deep awareness and skill. This skill is developed via the responses we have for coping with “everyday deprivations, challenges, and stress.”15 Over time, these become habits. By the time we have exited adolescence, these habits have become a very important trait.


In addition to defining the personal aspects of sovereignty, Nartova-Bochaver identifies six domains:

  1. Body
  2. Territory
  3. Things (belongings)
  4. Routine habits
  5. Social contacts
  6. Tastes and values16

One’s preferences along these domains comprise a sovereignty pattern or profile. People with a high degree of personal sovereignty have high self-esteem and self-representation, communicate more effectively with others, and have a general sense of trust in the world. People with low personal sovereignty tend toward avoidance and anxiety in their relationships, depression, and criminal behavior.

High personal sovereignty is critical to well-being and achievement; and low personal sovereignty makes it difficult to overcome life’s challenges.

Nartova-Bochaver was prompted to study personal sovereignty after several years working at the consultation center of the Scientific Research Institute for Childhood of the Russian Children’s Foundation. There she noticed that children and adolescents who exhibited aggressive behavior, vandalism, and theft often had lives where their need for personal life space had been denied. The more deeply adults denied them this space, the more serious the reaction. These early experiences shape the person and tend to persist.17

Nartova-Bochaver and her team constructed the Personal Sovereignty Questionnaire.18 Most of the items were taken from real psychotherapy client stories of traumatic life events. Each item includes not only a description of an event, but one’s feelings as one reflects on it. Thus, the same event may give rise to very different experiences, depending on one’s interpretation.

The questionnaire has six subscales representing the aforementioned domains. Examples of items are:

  1. I often felt offended when adults punished me with slapping and cuffing (Body).
  2. I always had a place (table, chest, box), where I could hide my favorite things (Territory).
  3. It annoyed me when my mother shook my things out of the pockets before laundering (Things/Belongings).
  4. I often became sad when I didn’t finish my play because I was called by my parents (Routine habits).
  5. My parents accepted that they didn’t know all of my friends (Social contacts).
  6. I usually succeeded in having a children’s celebration as I liked (Tastes and values).19

She explains,