Leadership lessons in letting go
I like to think of it as hibernating.  I’m no bear, but going out of commission for 6-8 weeks sounded an awful lot like taking a winter’s nap (even if it is September).

The physical preparation 

Any hibernation takes preparation.  Stocking up.  After all, if a bear doesn’t have enough food for the winter, bad things can happen.

I did my fair share anticipating my needs and buying things.  The more research I did, the more I’d buy.

Ultimately, this process was more cathartic than practical.  There are a few things that will assist me medically, but most of it was completely mental:

  • A body pillow to help me rest.
  • Superhero movies and Netflix binge watching for when I can’t.
  • Adult coloring books for when I’m feeling inspired.
  • Fiction and non-fiction books for learning and distraction when I’m not.
  • Star Wars origami because it’s awesome and I’ll never have a better excuse.

What this process really represented was my need to control.  I started to plan out my entire recovery and my project plan was EPIC!

The illusion and appeal of control

Control may be an illusion, but it’s an appealing one.  As leaders, the idea that we can control what goes on around us is like a drug.  The more success we have influencing positive outcomes in challenging circumstances, the more we buy into the illusion.

As a former project manager, I was used to treating the world around me like a big puzzle to be solved.  Hey, if I could manage huge teams and zillions of moving pieces, what couldn’t I manage?

Oh the reality checks I’ve had throughout the years.  The endless reminders that nothing was really in my control, other than my response to whatever was happening.

Yet, I continued each day in the illusion.  I got up every morning with the conviction that I could affect the world around me, rather than the other way around.  Otherwise, why get out of bed?

Accepting the challenge of letting go

We are all heroes in our own journey, with lessons we must learn.  This was and is mine.  The lesson of control, and giving up the illusion.

For years, I was faced with medical challenges.  Hours, days or weeks interrupted.  Disrupting whatever I had planned.  Pushing everything else to the back burner.

Yet I fought.  I was determined to keep everything going to plan.  Even if that meant operating as the walking wounded.

I delayed my journey, refusing to pick up the challenge.  I continued to live in denial.

Technology and increasing workplace flexibility were my co-conspirators.  Working remotely enabled me to mask the worst of my medical challenges.  Were the tools that allowed me to keep up the illusion of control.

Until now.

I’m over half way through an extended absence.  Two months of zero work cannot be addressed by technology or workplace flexibility.  I can no longer press forward, convinced I can work through whatever ails me.  I have to give up control to my body.

The mental preparation

I finally accepted my challenge.  I recognized the patterns of the last 20+ years and decided to face this head on.  Even if facing it meant acceptance and endurance, rather than the “go get ‘em” approach I would normally take.

So the rest of my hibernation preparation was also mental, but not at all cathartic.  I had to get my head around five lessons that I hope will change me for the better.  They will redefine how I live and lead, and I’d argue are good lessons for any leader.

  1. Let go of the work.  My team and peers can handle whatever comes up while I’m gone.  They will make different decisions than I would.  I will support those decisions when I return.
  2. Let go of my ego.  The team wants me around, but they don’t need me to get the job done.  I will reward and recognize their achievements in my absence.
  3. Let go of control.  The team dynamic will change while I’m gone.  It will be what they need, not what I want.  I will accept and embrace the change.
  4. Let go of my fears.  I’m scared to death.  I have made the best decisions I can.  I must trust the doctors to do their part.  I will manage what I discover on the other side.
  5. Let go of my frenetic pace.  I can no longer go, go, go.  I need to rest and listen to my body’s needs.  I will accept my slower mental and physical pace to reflect, learn and recover.

The leader’s role

It’s possible the rest of the world has already figured these out, and I’m just late to the game.  Yet, when I looked around me before the surgery, it didn’t ring true.  These lessons all sound good, but they are not easy to do.

While we all delegate, how many of us do a complete hand-off?  It’s natural to provide coaching if difficulties arise.  But what if we weren’t there?

If we see a communication gap or conflict, most of us would feel compelled to fix it.  What if we let it linger?  What if we risked the negative impacts and allowed the team to learn the lesson?

Stepping out of the way goes against everything we are taught as leaders.

Ironically, by stepping in and addressing the issues, risks and gaps we see from our viewpoint as leaders, we are precluding our teams from seeing and resolving them.

Yet protecting our teams is what we do.  It’s our job.

Or is it?

If we are a shield for our teams, it builds our resiliency as leaders.  What does it build for our teams?  It makes them protected, not prepared.

The real job of a leader is preparing our teams to self-manage.  The biggest challenge – unless we choose hibernation (or a sabbatical) – is how to be present, and resist our natural tendency to step in when we see trouble brewing.

Though it might not be easy, there is great reward to be found at the other side of letting go.  More capable teams.  More capacity for leaders to address new and innovative opportunities.  More time to model that whole work-life balance thing.


Have you ever intentionally stepped back, to give your team room to grow?  I’d love if you could share your experience in the comments.