Leadership skill: Letting Go

Guest post by Graham Williams.

Letting go is a vital skill for all people and leaders in particular. Of course, it is easier said than done. Leaders who can let go of fears, and of “musts” create space for their teams to shine. They delegate, share power and lead in a collaborative way. Take a look at what you are carrying, what you are holding onto. Put down some of that baggage to free yourself and the others around you.

A man was running for his life to escape a hungry tiger.
He came to the edge of a cliff, stepped over and held onto a vine. The tiger couldn’t reach him, but there was no way up again.
Looking down he saw another tiger at the bottom waiting for him to let go and fall.
A rat appeared and began gnawing at the vine.
The man noticed a strawberry growing on the face of the cliff.
He held the vine with one hand and with the other grabbed the strawberry and ate it.
How sweet it tasted!

What are you holding on to?

At any given time, you may become aware that something is holding you back. Something is making you unhappy; something triggers inappropriate behavior – that you ought to let go. This may be something from your past (the tiger above) or something you face in the future (the tiger below). Does any of these apply to you?

  • Negative thoughts or feelings about someone or some situation – grudge, resentment, anger, worry, response to criticism, compulsive attachment, feeling like a victim
  • A need to be right
  • A bad habit – smoking or always saying yes to please others to gain acceptance
  • Striving for more and more power, possessions, status
  • Blaming ourselves, or taking responsibility to what doesn’t “belong” to us
  • Unwillingness to yield control, maintain the status quo – perhaps letting go of our children when it’s time to leave the nest, or in the workplace having difficulty with delegating.
  • Fear to lose someone or something.

Why should you let go?

When we fail to let go of something, or someone (a negative feeling, limiting belief, emotional block, blaming our team or family), then we carry a burden. We fall short of being what we could be. We remain stuck, as in the words of the Anthony Hamilton and Mark Batson lyrics “No matter what the people say, I can’t, I can’t let go. No, no”.

Leadership skill: let go. You can only lose what you cling to – Buddha Click To Tweet

dark-cellI like this illustration of a man in a pitch dark cell, peering continually through the bars at a faint glimmer of light. So fixated is he, that he fails to let go and explore the cell itself, not knowing that the door is open and that by letting go he would be free.
In the same way, we become imprisoned in our limiting beliefs, ‘comfort zones’, destructive emotions and behaviors. If we can’t let go of the feelings and thoughts we have, then they have us.

Letting go for leaders

As a leader in the workplace, allowing others to take responsibility is a way of letting go so that they may become more fully empowered and engaged. Simultaneously we are freed of our fear of losing control, of a drive to be perfect, of getting the credit for something. We can let go, share power and be collaborative when we are in a place of self-confidence.
Let go: put down some of your baggage and free yourself and others Click To Tweet

The person who we are has a direct impact on the organization’s ability to let go of certain destructive practices. Organizations and teams change when the people in them change. Especially when the leader works on letting go of what still hinders him or her. Sometimes a leader has to let go of playing a role, projecting an image – and simply be him/herself: human, vulnerable, and authentic.
What hinders you…?

400-letgoAt the organizational level, not-letting-go may be disastrous. I know an organization that attempted to cope with the ever-increasing pace and magnitude of change. They’ve been through many transformation initiatives, introduced new technologies, and applied a host of new approaches trying to become more responsive, and effective. To no or little avail. They haven’t let go of what really holds them back, and they continue with the same power politics, dysfunctional behaviors, and underlying values. Staff morale and commitment levels plummeted.

“To let go is not to cut myself off, it’s the realization that I can’t control another.
To let go is not to try and change or blame another or a situation; it’s to make the most of myself. 
To let go is not to fix, but to be supportive.
To let go is not to be arranging all the outcomes, but to allow others to affect their own destinies. 
To let go is not to deny but to accept.
To let go is not to regret the past or the present, but to grow and live for the future” – Anonymous

How to let go?

Letting go is not easy. It pushes our safety margins and boundaries. Our brains have plasticity, but rewiring takes time! But we can imprint new attitudes and thoughts, and alter our neural pathways.
From my situation, four very different examples of letting go come to mind:

Failure to secure a business meeting

Dare you delegate to your team? Let go of knowing answers? Of office politics? Click To Tweet
I’ve consulted to and coached a client on two different assignments in two countries. In the process, we became friends. Recently the client was assigned to my home country and made contact. He outlined numerous challenges regarding his new senior executive posting, and I offered to set up further meetings to help him. But his time was so taken up with travel and meetings that we didn’t get together. My SMS, email, and phone messages were not returned. Months passed. My response was to find excuses for the client. I felt rejected and experienced doubt about my relevance. Reluctantly, I’ve come to the rational conclusion that the client’s expectations are different than mine and that it’s time for me to let go.

Quitting smoking

During my army training, every 40-minute class or session was followed by a ‘smoke break’ and I became a smoker. Over the years, I’ve attempted to quit – remedies ranging from hypnotism, electronic cigarettes, gum, nicotine patches, scare tactics… At one point I abstained for 15 years, then bowed to group pressure at a birthday celebration and had an after-dinner cigar. The smoking habit took off again, and I came to the realization that I was addicted – physically and psychologically. I am currently smoking, and I can’t let go.

Having a friend who became a kleptomaniac

let-goUnbeknown to me a friend was a secret kleptomaniac. With nothing to gain, she would steal items of little value from shops and markets. She was apprehended, but charges were dropped on the condition that she underwent counseling. During counseling, she came to address issues of low self-esteem as a primary cause of her behavior. She adopted a counter – trigger: upon entering a place of temptation she snapped a rubber wristband as a call to resist stealing and a reminder of the shock she felt when she was caught. She confided in trusted friends and steadfastly worked at understanding herself and overcoming self-destructive behaviors. She let go of this urge!

A friend who cannot say ‘no’

Another friend has had great difficulty with saying ‘no’ to work and private requests for his time. He is always frenetically busy, has experienced burnout more than once, and tried various time-management solutions. It seems that there is an internal drive to please others and to feel appreciated, and a fear of a possible negative response by others when he says ‘no.’
From the outside looking in I can see that he would be far more effective in reaching his dreams, setting his agenda, being more productive, and would gain more respect from others if he stopped acceding to every request. But this behavior pattern is very hard to let go for him.

Steps to help you Let Go

Letting go includes the following steps (not always in the same order):

  • Identify what’s causing unease – become aware (no matter how uncomfortable) of what it is within you that you should let go.
  • Make a choice, a firm decision to move beyond awareness to actually letting go.
  • Think about what ‘benefit’ or ‘satisfaction’ you gain: keeping control, gaining approval, reducing stress, being resentful, getting comfort.
  • What are the underlying drivers? Are they emotional, attached to a particular person or daily event, a place?
  • Think long and hard about how you can achieve the underlying drivers if you replace negative behaviors  by positive behaviors that would have the same outcomes. For instance: At the end of a long, tough day relaxing with a cigarette may be replaced by breathing meditation while listening to relaxing music.
  • Acknowledge this and share it with others who you trust and who will support you.
  • Then just do it. Act before your willpower lessens. This may take the form of alternative triggers that work for you. Instead of smoking when having a cup of coffee that sets off your nicotine desire, practice deep and mindful breathing until the craving passes. Instead of automatically saying ‘yes,’ practice a new response like ‘Let me think about that, look at my schedule’ and give yourself time – it’s easier to change a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ after reflection, rather than the other way around. Instead of comfort eating to feel better, keep a journal of every time you succumb, examine why it happened, learn to do something else every time you’re tempted and start feeling better about yourself as you succeed.
  • Reinforce new positive behaviors. Give yourself positive affirmations. Play positive ‘mind tapes’: be kind to yourself, and applaud your determination until you have let go and your new habit is formed and becomes automatic.

Self-development for leaders

In the process, our self-esteem is boosted. It’s like carrying baggage or holding a heavy object. It’s only heavy when you hold it – not when you’ve let go of it. Once released, you travel lightly.

jump and let goIn the workplace, there may be fears, resentments, controlling, and self-protective behaviors we should put behind us. Dare you delegate to your team? Can you let go of role play and be an authentic human being while leading? Dare you let go of knowing all the answers? Of boosting your ego? Of office politics?

We can learn the skill of being aware, acknowledging and letting go, developing an attitude of acceptance and contentment with what we have, and we may forgive ourselves and others.
Rituals, self-affirmation, active imagination and meditation, counter-triggers, and the support of colleagues are among the tools we can use.

“Some changes look negative on the surface, but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge” – Eckhart Tolle

We can look at the stories we tell ourselves that explain why we haven’t yet succeeded, feel unhappy, are not coping, repeat destructive behaviors – to uncover limiting beliefs and underlying drivers.

When we’re not driven automatically by needs and by these defenses to ensure that we remain ‘safe and secure’ – we may create a new story that we want to live. That story will inspire your team at work, too. They will notice even if you don’t tell them.

#Leadership: learn to let go of everything but the present, and be free Click To Tweet

Please note that I refer to thought, feeling and behavior patterns – not deep-seated personality, nature and (some) nurture, genes or memes issues that warrant professional counseling and therapy.
When you apply letting-go skills, you can, over time, learn to let go of everything but the present moment, and become free.

Journaling questions (if you like):

  • What would you like to let go – when you see the checklist at the beginning?
  • Can you make a decision to confront your issue, and formulate a ‘letting go’ plan for yourself?
  • When will you do this? Who will be your support?

Graham Williams is a certified management consultant, thought leader, business narrative practitioner and author based in Cape Town, South Africa. He can be reached at https://www.haloandnoose.com

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this blog and ocai-online.com.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Ahmed Alkhawlani

    I think u have covered all aspects of letting go and well written.
    Thank you.
    Once u delegate people they start asking for more monetary incentive rise in salary, commission.
    What should u do?
    Should give them what they ask for or just stay in control?
    Let me add one reason why we should let go of bad habits.
    From my personal experience, I gave up on bad habits fearing the sequence of keeping doing it.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Delegating is a part of letting-go and it depends on the context whether an extra monetary compensation is appropriate. There is no one-fits-all advice of what you should do and it depends on the culture you’re working in. Some cultures expect monetary rewards while others focus first on job satisfaction or professional growth. If you have delegated lots of work – a raise may be in order. If it’s not so much or so difficult, the delegated tasks could be simply part of the current job. I think the best way to delegate is to make sure you also delegate interesting tasks that help the employee develop further. This way, delegation in itself is a reward because the task is interesting (but check this first: does the employee find it interesting?). In addition, delegation can be rewarded with sincere compliments and may raise the status of said employee.

    2. Anonymous

      Thank you Ahmed.
      Another thing to think on is that we are both extrinsically and intrinsically motivated. Extrinsically by money, reward, power, position, possessions …. and intrinsically by a higher purpose, satisfaction, connectivity …. and sometimes these relate to the two halves of life!

  2. Saira Khan

    Some great points to ponder with encouragement to face one’s fears & unclutter the mind…..tempting!

    Love the quote, “Some changes look negative on the surface, but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge” – Eckhart Tolle

    I truly believe that everything happens for a reason though it’s only in hindsight that you can really connect the dots…..!

    Great piece, thanks for sharing!

  3. Franca Whyte

    This article is really informative and lovely. Thanks for sharing it with us and I am glad I came across it.

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