Now you probably read the title of my blog and thought, “what does a song about an ice princess struggling to find her place in a world that fears her, got to do with Leadership?”

Wrong reference, unfortunately (for you Disney fans).

I started thinking about letting go, after watching a recent webinar hosted by Barry Posner (Co-Author, The Leadership Challenge). He explored the difference between “managing” and “leading”. He went back to the origins of both words.

Manage To handle / to train (you are holding onto the reigns).

Lead To guide, to travel (movement, an action word, letting go)

Letting go can be incredibly difficult. This is because relinquishing control is not naturally comfortable, particularly when you want so badly to succeed! But letting go is an important competency displayed by great leaders.

For example, Jim Bush took over American Express customer service operations in 2005. He had thousands of call-center employees reporting to him. Thousands! Prior to Bush, leaders followed the conventional “command-and-control” model which involved prescribed scripts, strict call monitoring, strict call handling. Little room for creativity. Turnover was high and morale was down. Bush let go of these controls and rather wanted to let customers set the pace. Reps became customer care professionals and recruitment became focused on attracting new talent that embodied the values of warmth, customer care and passion. American Express reaped the reward by seeing a 10% annual improvement in service margins, higher referrals and reduced turnover.

His success? Letting go.


Relinquishing some control to your team will be challenging, and frustrating. It will require patience. Yes, you could have probably written that report in 2 hours rather than reviewing 3 drafts and spending all that time talking through the context and concept. Yes, it would probably feel easier to take the escalated customer complaint call, rather than provide the opportunity for another to step up and mentor them through the call. Yes, you will be disappointed… people will not always get it right… there may be some messes, some words needed, some risk mitigation required.

But! There will also be wins and increased confidence and more autonomy. Your team will be happier and more competent. And for you, this means MORE opportunity to do what you do best – focusing on the big picture, implementing the important priorities, mentoring and making a positive impact to the bottom line.

We are moving into a new era of leadership where traditional management practices are not as effective. The command and control model restricts innovation and motivation, and companies following this model will struggle to compete for talent as we move into the age of “knowledge workers”.

Hlupic (2012) explains that when top leaders let go of their control, this actually distributes power, seeing others step up. She suggests “we begin to see natural leaders emerge on the basis of their knowledge and expertise, and decision-making is distributed on the basis of knowledge rather than their formal position in an organisational structure… people are given responsibilities rather than tasks… culture is based on trust and transparency… there is a community ethos… experimentation with new ideas is encouraged whilst mistakes are tolerated…”

Just this morning, I attended a talk which was looking at effective change management practices. The guest speaker, an Executive of a large not-for-profit organisation, attributed their successful change in a large part to a renewed focus on leadership training at all levels and living authentic values of the business. Their leadership framework is built on the theory of “servant leadership” and again, the key principles of ‘leading’ and ‘guiding’ others shine through. This guest speaker also reaffirmed a key truth by saying “one of the largest threats to effective leadership, I believe, is the Ego”. And yes, this got a big applause from the room.

Their success? Letting go. Distributing the power and encouraging leaders at all levels to take up accountability and be part of the transformation journey. Guiding others, and then trusting them to make the decisions required.

I would encourage you to ask yourself these important questions –

  1. Do you know who you are? What do you fear?
  2. Are you aware how your fears may make you hold on too tight?
  3. Are you aware of how controlling behaviour and your Ego may stifle your team?
  4. Do you acknowledge these fears and are you able to put down that baggage?
  5. How could ‘letting go’ create more space for your team to shine?

Let me know what you come up with.

Kaitlan Laurie – Organisational Development Consultant 

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