Over the years I have had the great fortune to work with many successful leaders; people who have helped their teams accomplish more and helped individuals make productive, lasting and meaningful changes in their lives. One trait that every one of those leaders had in common was the art of letting go. They were able to help people become more capable without creating dependence on the leader. The people they interacted with learned to lead themselves rather than search for leadership in others. The interesting paradox of leadership is that a great leader helps people need less leadership from others.
Great leaders help people become more accountable for their own success, become leaders in their own right and require leadership from others less often as a condition of their success. The challenge many managers face on their way to becoming leaders is that they really enjoy managing other people. They like making sure their people are successful so much that they take over the job of succeeding for them. Success is a personal, individual decision and when managers think they are responsible for the success of others, they begin to get in the way of it. What leaders should be responsible for is helping individuals achieve their own potential. To do that, they have to coach, model, mentor, support, push, challenge… and learn to let go.
We can help them prepare for the race, but we can’t run it for them.
We can help them create their own definition of success but we can’t achieve it for them.
We must support them as they try, fail and ultimately chart their own course. To do that effectively, we have to understand that it is their course that matters for them, not ours. It’s the difference between pushing them in their direction and pulling them in ours. Only one will help them succeed, the other simply fulfills our own desire to be responsible for their success.
This is why great leaders rarely tell and often ask. Asking helps people think for themselves, define their own solutions and stretch their idea of what is possible. Telling only helps them become clearer on what we want them to do. As leaders our job becomes making things happen, not getting things done. And things happen better when other people are accountable, fully engaged and own the success that comes with accomplishment. None of that happens if we just direct them. When we do that, we are asking them to engage for us, and people must ultimately engage for themselves.
It has often been said that leaders, by definition, have followers. That may be true but the goal has to be the creation of more leaders, not more followers. If we play a role in helping people become more successful, it will be an amazingly satisfying experience. But if we approach leadership with the idea that our “followers” are dependent on us for success, we will never become successful ourselves as a leader. It is impossible to teach a kid to ride a bike without letting go, and it is equally impossible to help someone reach his or her potential by holding on, maintaining control, or being responsible. Letting go is one of the hardest things leaders do, and maybe, the most important.