‘Tis the season to give. And to give up. I mean “give up” not in the sense of surrendering, but in the sense of letting go. What do you need to let go of, in order to move into the new year unencumbered by baggage?
A leadership principle
There is a leadership principle I teach in workshops under the title “Leadership Listening.” In a nutshell, the principle is this: leadership always involves change, and change always involves loss. Before I describe the implications of this claim, let me take a moment to explain it.
Why do I say leadership always involves change? The answer should be obvious, but sometimes I receive pushback on this claim. A leader is trying to accomplish something that has not been accomplished before, or else (perhaps) trying to accomplish the same results as before but in a changed environment. Either way, something new must be tried. There must be a change from the status quo. If not, then there is no need for leadership, but merely for management, which is altogether different.
Then what about loss? No matter how desirable the new course of action may be, in any organization there will always be people who are invested in the status quo. Therefore, someone is being asked to give up something so that the new thing may grow in its place. When that happens, there is a sense of loss. And loss is always met with an emotional reaction, either fear (of an anticipated loss) or grief (for a loss that has taken place) or a mixture of both.
Effective leaders must therefore ask two questions: (1) What am I asking people to give up? And (2) How am I acknowledging the emotional response to that loss? Members of an organization that is undergoing change must be given the time and permission to process their emotions around what they perceive that they are giving up. Otherwise, those negative emotions remain unresolved and turn into a morale problem.
A self-improvement principle
Now, let’s turn that principle inward and look at its implications for self-improvement – which can also be thought of as self-leadership.
The impending arrival of a new year is often a time for reflection and introspection. It seems natural to look back over the year drawing to a close and ask, “What goals have I accomplished? What changes that I intended to make this year did I actually carry out?” Based on the answers to those questions, we often set new goals or make the familiar “new year’s resolutions.” But will anything actually change in the new year? Why or why not?
I think the reason we often fail to perceive progress from one year to the next is because we don’t follow the self-improvement version of the principle described above. We have to ask those two questions of ourselves: (1) What must I give up to accomplish the desired change? And (2) How will I process the emotional response to that loss?
Last year, my wife and I relocated to new city some 200 miles from where we had lived for seven years. In our new location, we knew very few people. We both set to work immediately trying to insinuate ourselves into our new community in a variety of ways, with varying degrees of success. Yet, despite all the good that has come from it, there has been a lingering sense of unease over this move. Together, we have come to realize that neither of us did a good job of identifying and grieving what had been lost. It wasn’t our first move by any means, but it took place in a different stage of life, and we were in a different place emotionally when the time came. We focused on what was coming next and paid too little attention to the acknowledging-and-processing step. Since coming to realize that, we have gone back and done the work we should have done a year previous, and we are feeling much better about situation now. What a difference it might have made to our outlook if we had done that emotional work sooner!
So, as you approach the new year – or whatever milestone you may be facing as you read this – I hope you will not repeat my mistake. To effect a change in your life, be sure to ask yourself what you must give up, and how you will process the emotions around that loss. That’s not being negative; it’s practicing good self-leadership.
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