Sometimes letting go is the best way to regain control of a situation.
The best leaders already know this, but even the best have trouble acting upon it. What shall we let go, then?
First, let go of blame. Great leaders are famous for taking the blame when those under their charges fail: “The buck stops here,” or, “my team, my fault.” After all, if we are going to take the credit when it all works, it’s only fair that we take the blame when it doesn’t. Further to that, the ideal situation is to take the blame when things go wrong and give the credit away, back to the team, when things go right. Good leaders don’t need the spotlight.
However, there are several components of letting go for this area. First, we must be sure this isn’t just lip service and really let go of the blame. Blame is a negative emotion that serves no purpose and mistakes can be terrific lessons to any of us. The stories about Thomas Edison or Fred Astaire don’t need to be repeated. But it bears repeating that the learning process is going to be full of errors. We may have performed our jobs for so long that we have forgotten that we weren’t born knowing how to do them. The people we have under our charges today may never have seen a pro-rata wheel, but they were born practically using computers. So their talents are just as valuable, but in other areas. Allow the lesson to be learned when mistakes happen by asking lots of questions and helping the person see why it shouldn’t happen again, and how to avoid it.
There is another blame-game we play. When publicly taking blame, some of us let it fester within our egos for too long. We give no margins for errors, and it can cost us. Self esteem and confidence will slowly erode if we hold onto the blame for too long. Even as leaders we have to make mistakes to learn. Leadership is largely an emotional job, and if we aren’t healthy, it’s tough to keep everyone else at full capacity.
Finally, stop blaming things beyond your control. Our industry is full of this. Shareholders, the economy, the weather and much more can cause problems that no one could anticipate or stop. If you have the right foundation under your business, and have done the proper preparation for all these items to the greatest extent possible, you can neither blame yourself nor these circumstances when something goes wrong.
When I was serving at one of my first management jobs, the outgoing manager told me this story:
A young man was at the last day of his training for his first management job. His predecessor said: “I have left you three envelopes in the top drawer of the desk. When something goes wrong, open the envelopes in order.” The first time the new manager ran into trouble, he remembered the envelopes. Rushing to his office, he opened the one marked No. 1. The note was just two words: “Blame me.” The new manager went to his superiors and explained that he was still cleaning up after the last person in his position and that he’d have it all straightened out soon. This answer was satisfactory. A few years later, there was another problem. The manager found the second envelope. “Blame the economy,” it read. He spoke to his board of directors and once again averted the situation. It wasn’t too much later that more trouble brewed. He ran upstairs to his desk, grabbed the third envelope and opened it. This time, it read: “Prepare three envelopes…”
Placing blame is never a good long-term solution. Spend the energy solving the problem instead of pointing fingers (even at yourself) and you will move further toward your goal. Take care with the words you use. It’s easier to look backward, at how we used to do it, than to try and get clear focus in a crystal ball. So the human tendency is to look backward first. Except as an analysis for prevention, this is useless.
What else shall we let go? How about control? Have we held on so tightly that no one around us can move in any direction? Are we so mired in the day-to-day process that we cannot see the path ahead? Are our ideas the only ones that can save the day?
Of course, we know that the answers are clear. We must let go of control. We do not have all the answers. The very confidence and characteristics that make us good leaders can get in our way; these are two sides of the same coin. We can find the answers, and quickly. But it’s not always the best solution in the long run.
We cannot lead from behind. We must forge ahead, without trampling others to get there, and allow others whom we trust to handle the details. How often do we miss the opportunity for growth because we do not allow others to come up with their own solutions? For most problems or opportunities, there are dozens of answers. If your team members know the boundaries, they can be allowed to use their own solutions. You will find they don’t always do everything the way that you would. They may not be as efficient. Early projects may not go as smoothly as if you had written down every step for them. However, they will be learning, and you can spend your time doing what you are responsible to do: moving them into the future. Unless you see them heading for the proverbial cliff, bite your tongue. See what they can do. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Remember to check your controls frequently. I often quote Robert Townsend, former CEO (and savior) of Avis. In his book “Further Up the Organization,” he tells the story of a garage supervisor. When the company was in serious trouble, he had created a system of checks and balances to control the purchase of various tools. It was a lot of paperwork, but it helped keep the budget in line. A couple of years after the crisis was averted, Townsend asked the supervisor why it was so difficult for mechanics to get the tools they needed. “Oh my goodness,” he said. “I forgot to let go of the reins when things got better!”
Where have you tightened the reins to the point of suffocation? Are there areas that are still tightly managed because you can’t let go, or because you just forgot to do so? Remember the lesson of mercury in the palm of your hand. The harder you squeeze the faster it runs through your fingers.
Let go. The possibilities are endless when you do.