Allison van Tilborgh
Why Great Leaders Must Let Go
An organization solely fixated on a founder will never outlast the founder.
You may be familiar with the myth that, once a leader learns to “let go,” he or she may finally be at peace. Sometimes letting go is framed as “not micromanaging one’s team.” Other times, letting go suggests “learning to delegate effectively.” Learning to let go, we are told, will help us sleep better at night. We will finally reap the rewards of our hard work.
But letting go isn’t easy. It hurts. It is this very process that keeps leaders up at night. We know that letting go is the only way forward, but learning to loosen one’s grip on an organization can produce anxiety and fear. To hand over the reins to others sometimes feels like a betrayal, or at the very least, a recipe for disaster. But it must be done.
No matter how experienced we are, each of us is limited to 24 hours in a day. At some point, the productivity tips, webinars and bullet journals will only take us so far. In most cases, the only way to create sustainable growth in an organization is to expand its core team. That part is comparatively easy. The hard part is begetting faith in your team and letting go of command.
Leadership has the tendency to turn the most untroubled individual into a control freak. That is likely because our success as leaders affects every aspect of our lives, from the money we earn to the friends we make. When a leader falls into the gilded trap of obsession, this desire for control can produce unwanted effects. Creativity runs low, burn-out sets in, leadership is ineffective and an organization can quickly lose direction altogether.
Organizations have never existed merely as a dialectic between leaders and followers. They are collections of individuals who each participate in a creative process. Stifling the voices of most of your organization members will only suppress the organizational vision as a whole. An organization solely fixated on a founder will never outlast the founder.
Letting go does not mean abandoning your organization, but it might involve allowing other leaders to emerge and have legitimate sway over the organization’s trajectory. For this reason, it is essential to make sure to have an inner circle one trusts wholeheartedly. They should be placed by design, not happenstance. They should align with your core vision for the organization and have the necessary skillsets and experience to lead in your stead.
These core team members should also be distinctive from you — perhaps even better than you. Having the ability to bring an organization to life is not the same as keeping it alive. Leaders need sustainers to see the realization of their dreams. Vision alone is not enough to keep an organization alive for the long haul.
Letting go of control over one’s organization is an admission of one’s limitations. It is an opportunity to breathe life into a structure that might stagnate if it rested on only one individual’s vision. Letting go is humbling, painful, exciting and absolutely a requirement if you want to grow. It is not easy, but it is necessary for the health of yourself and your organization.
This article was extracted from Issue 6 (Summer 2021) of the AVAIL Journal.