Distinction: Letting Go ≠ Being Indifferent


Thought leaders such as the Dalai Lama and the neuroscientists he works with remind us to “let go” in order to reduce stress, be happy and access peace of mind.

At the same time, letting go is not only important to feel better, but also to getting better results as a leader.

Let Go of What? 

    • Let go of a perceived state of being “in control”
    • Let go of emotions such as fears, suffering, resentments, anger, disappointments, etc. (aka emotional baggage)
    • Let go of wishes for expected outcomes

Leaders want to control the external world and hang on to fears for various reasons:

    • to meet their basic needs
    • to prove their value through external accomplishments (based on one of the legacy industrial model assumptions that people are commodities that need to prove their value through visible achievements)
    • because of the organizational reality that responsibility and authority is decoupled, making leaders responsible for outcomes for which they have no control (might a cross-functional project come to mind?)

The Dalai Lama may say that “not letting go” or “being controlling” is a western problem, but anyone who has traveled extensively around the world observes the same behavior in all countries linked to the global economy. Wherever there are schools, there are metrics of “learning” and “being a good student” and “getting good grades,” all of which instill a practice of proving one’s abilities by outcomes that others can see. Nothing changes beyond school days, as every adult activity is linked to proving one’s value — to a potential mate, an employer, an education institution, a bank, a venture capitalist and the list goes on.

What Can You Control?

The only “things” you can control are your thoughts, feelings and behavior.

Everything else is out of your control. You can influence other “things,” but cannot control them.

[distinction: control and influence – the latter allows choice, the former precludes it]

Some people claim that they can control others. In fact, most people “control” others through fear and this works in the short-, but not long-run. In today’s uncertain economy, it’s easy to use a fear of losing one’s job, losing one’s standing, losing one’s name, losing one’s livelihood to get people to do things they might not otherwise do. However, at one point, people get tired of fear and subsequently rebel against it. Historically speaking, we can remember the French Revolution and the US civil rights movement. Work-wise, we see all sorts of people leave the corporate world even when they’ve achieved success within it, because they no longer wish to be a slave to fears. Well-known leaders such as Stalin and Pol Pot had to kill people to “control” the situation and avoid rebellion and that’s the final stick within the carrot and stick dichotomy.

Assess yourself

How much time and energy in each day do you invest in trying to control what people think of you, know about you, see in you, like you, etc?

Track yourself for seven days and then see what you learn and notice.

For the next seven days, practice focusing on your own thoughts, feelings and behavior and see how much better things go for you. You’ll be amazed at how light, free and calm you feel.

The Costs of Not Letting Go

Health — stress, anxiety and frustration run high when trying to control the external world; according to scientists, biography affects biology, so when anxious, psychological and physiological health and well-being suffer

Influence — influence is negatively correlated to controlling behavior

Effectiveness — most people spend time and energy on controlling the “uncontrollables” and don’t spend time and energy for generating creative ways to solve problems or engaging people to get things done

Inspiration — it’s exhausting to try to control others and not at all fun or inspiring

Self-confidence — no way to feel confident doing something that’s essentially impossible (without using increasing levels of fear)

Scalability — it’s hard to scale leadership capacity (leading increasingly more people) when seeking control, because more things can happen when there are more people involved. Better to focus on what’s “controllable.”

Benefits of Letting Go

There’s a plethora of research that proves that letting go is realistic and healthy – see some of it here, here and here.

From empirical evidence, my clients report that they feel the following as they learn to let go:

    • calm
    • light
    • free
    • relieved
    • more energetic
    • have more time
    • more focused
    • more “in control” (!)
    • more confident

If It’s So Good, Why Don’t Leaders Let Go?

It’s all about the meaning. Most people believe that “hanging on” is needed to be successful, caring, useful and possible. They also believe that:

    • Letting go = I don’t care
    • Not letting go = I care

For example:

    • “I care about your success in this company and that’s why I’m giving you a harsh performance review, so that you’ll improve”
    • “I care about the project, that’s why I’m making sure everyone’s doing their parts, so we’ll all look good”
    • “If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t criticize you”
    • “I care about what you say, that’s why I’m still angry at what you said the other day”

Another set of beliefs:

    • Letting go = I don’t matter
    • Not letting go = I matter and can influence others and make things happen

For example:

    • “If I don’t ensure things turn out the way they’re supposed to, I’ll get fired.” (aka “if I’m valuable to this company, I need to control things”)
    • “When I feel like I can make things happen, I feel good” (aka, “I need to control things to feel good about myself”)
    • “I’ve started numerous entrepreneurial ventures and they’ve all been sold” (aka “I matter!”)

With these assumptions, letting go is not easy.

How might you let go and still care about people and outcomes? By doing your best to set up the situation for success without trying to control what people say, do, think, perceive, hope, etc. Another way is to contribute your best to a project without worrying about the outcome, even while quite interested to see what happens. It’s a detachment that doesn’t mean disengagement. It’s like standing on the Acropolis, watching what’s happening from a distance, while still observing the results and taking action at the right time.

How to Let Go

1) Realize that you can only control your thoughts, feelings and behavior (triad) and nothing/no one else. The more you focus on your triads, the more you’ll be filling your basic needs and the less you’ll need to try control the outside world.

2) Change the meaning you give to letting go. Consider thinking “letting go means I trust life” or “letting go means I’ve done my part and the rest comes from others” or “letting go means that I trust my ability to deal with any consequences that arise.” You can also realize that there is a universal law of cause and effect —  an action and reaction — so whatever you do has a response in the universe, so to speak, even thought you may not be aware of it. Thinking about this law allows you to focus on your part or contribution.

3) Wanting to feel “in control” stems from the need to fill one or more of your basic human needs (above oxygen, food, water, shelter): significance, certainty, love/connection, variety, growth and contribution. The more you fill your own needs in numerous ways, the less you’ll need to feel “in control” of the outer world and the more “in control” you’ll feel about yourself.

“Letting go” is a powerful leadership tool that lets you focus on things you can actually do instead of what it seems you should be able to do.

Have fun!

[Image from Freepik]