How Leaders Can Let Go a Little to Accomplish a Lot

Gripping too tightly is a thing I do.

Recently, I was doing a strength exercise with a bar for the first time, and my hand and forearm started to hurt.  The discomfort was a helpful signal to stop and check in and realize I was over-squeezing the bar. 

It’s not the only time I’d noticed this tendency.  When I started rowing, I injured my finger holding onto the oar too tightly. My family teases me that when we travel, I used to clutch the guidebook like a life preserver.  

It makes sense that in an unfamiliar situation or in an unfamiliar movement, I’d tense up and hold on.  

And yet, as I adjusted my grip on the bar, I noticed how a looser grip, counterintuitively, enables me to lift more weight, and move the oar more skillfully.

The same is true in leadership.

When taking on increasing responsibility, in times of stress, or feeling out of control, our instinct might be to double down and “grip harder” –

more oversight,

more detail orientation,

more doing the work ourself. 

We may also “hold on” to work we did in the past, particularly work we enjoy or that defined us as an expert.

The tight-grip leadership approach might succeed for a while.  We can power through it.  But in the longer term it doesn’t. It holds people who could help out at arm’s length.  Effort may be misplaced (like using the wrong muscle). Plus, it’s tiring.

Instead, the opposite approach can be beneficial – letting go.

What could that look like?

From extreme focus to bigger picture:  Sometimes faced with a problem, jumping into action on our first idea isn’t the best approach.  When I feel adamant or impatient, it’s often a sign to step back and ask, what’s really going on here?

From do it yourself to working together:  When we’ve been so successful and rewarded for the quality of our own work, it’s easy to forget that most problems are not meant to be solved solo. When you feel that desire to tighten control, ask instead, who else can I involve?

From I’m the only one who can to “What is mine to do now?” Circumstances change and what was squarely in your line of responsibility before may not be any more. Is this an opportunity to pass on the work and trust someone else to do it?

It’s another paradox of the expert to leader journey, to give something up to ultimately accomplish more.

Ask yourself, where are you clutching?  Holding on tightly?  Maybe it’s time to let go.

Want to receive more of my tips, reflections and resources? Subscribe to “Try It!  The Scientific Leadership Newsletter” and get my content directly to your inbox!

Leave a Comment