Why Leaders Must Let Go

As I write this blog, I am watching the autumn leaves fall so effortlessly from the trees in Nelson (it’s Autumn in New Zealand).

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Me and my girl, enjoying another beautiful Autumn day.

I am reminded how we can learn a lot from nature – even in business and leadership. Mother Nature knows a thing or two about life cycles, when and how to let go and that in order for there to be new ‘life’, so there must be ‘death’.  It is the natural order of things.

But boy, do we resist dying and cling (often desperately), when the wisest thing is to just let it go.

In her wonderful book on leadership, Wild Courage, Elle Harrison dedicates a whole chapter to this concept and says that often in an organisational context, “dying (decline and endings) are seen as failures”.

Here are just a few examples of the concept of ‘letting go’ in the workplace:

  • Death of that hero product that defined our career and on whose back our company rode the waves for so long but is now past its ‘use by date’.
  • The scrapping of a new initiative or business idea we thought was the panacea to all our ills, and fought so hard for, but which has failed to fly.
  • Redundancy or resignation are ‘deaths’ of sorts, by a requirement to leave something behind and start afresh. Even the changing of the guard of CEOs  provide an opportunity to examine and acknowledge transitions.  Air New Zealand and Fonterra are just two examples of organisations who have recently experienced this in the form of the resignations of Andrew Ferrier and Rob Fyfe.
  • At an organisational level, even mergers, buyouts and insolvency are examples of the death phase of business life cycles.
  • On a personal level, we often clutch at outdated ideals and even frames of references that have served us well in our decision making to date, when it would serve us better to say farewell – and move on to a more helpful approach.

In their article Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions, Campbell, Whitehead and Finklestein raise our awareness to several traps associated with holding on to the past:

Distorting attachments: when we become attached to people, places and things – bonds which affect our judgement we form about both the situation we face and appropriate actions we take – and;

Misleading Memories: memories that seem relevant and comparable to the current situation, but lead our thinking down the wrong path.

As Andre Gide so eloquently puts it:

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

In my next post I’ll talk about the transition process of letting go and how to make it easier, but in the meantime ask yourself – what do I (or we) need to let go of?

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3 Comments

  1. […] attributes to master, but will take you to a whole new level when you do. Read my post about why leaders must let go to find out more on the […]

  2. […] ← Why Leaders Must Let Go […]

  3. Jayne Muller on May 9, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Well said as always and very succinct!!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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