When I first took on a ‘formal’ position as a leader, I think I wasn’t really up to it. People looked at me with expectations that I felt I could not meet at that time. I made many beginner’s mistakes like assuming too much and focusing on myself rather than on others. So I had to learn. That was 20 years ago.
And what I have learned over the years is that leadership is in essence quite simple. Next to the motivation to lead there is basically only one thing you need to learn to do right: that’s to to decide when and how to let go of things and when and how to hold on to things.
To me leadership is looking constantly for a balance between the two. You need to decide what you hold on to and what you can let go of. And that’s an important decision that requires confidence and trust. So, you need to have confidence that you can make that decision and that you are willing and able to accept and manage any consequences that come from that decision. On the other hand you need to trust the people in your team.
You can decide to hold on to everything. Every detail passes through your hands. I met a senior VP once who wanted to see all the marketing material prior to publication. Many people had worked on the ads and he was capable of wiping it all away because he didn’t like the eyes of the model, the colours, the font, the position of the logo, the copy, … He wanted to decide (at the end) about every aspect. And the only reason was that he used to be brand manager and he still felt like one. He could not trust his team to make the right decisions. And by doing this, he never invested in developing his team. It was like a vicious circle. The consequences? Slow decisions, frustrated people, high attrition rates.
Finding the right balance between letting go and holding on is a leadership leverage. It holds many advantages for you as a leader:
- You can find peace in what you do. There is no need to control everything. You choose what you want to decide upon, and what not.
- Processes are faster. You are no longer the bottle neck. You can focus on the leadership trinity: values, progress and exceptions.
- People are clear about what they can decide and what not. This creates also balance within the team.
- Letting go as much as possible makes people grow. Sometimes they might stand on their toes but they grow.
- By explicitly deciding what you want to hold on to, you make clear what is important to you.
- By holding on to results (progress), values and strategy you shape an attractive future.
- By being available when people need you, you create proximity and team cohesion.
- You get respect as a leader because of your self-confidence, clarity, your availability and your trust in people.
Letting go of as much as possible and holding on to what you need to hold on to is the single most important skill a leader needs to develop. Young leaders might not be able to do that as the skill develops over the years through the experiences, the successes and the failures. But once you understand this, you are half way into developing true leadership.
See also : The Leadership Trinity