S1:E16 – The Art of Letting Go: An Essential Skill for Leadership and Life


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore what makes letting go so challenging for leaders, why it is important to their success and sustainability, and what we can do to develop this underutilized yet vital muscle.



Don’t forget to check out my You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Bridgette: Well, welcome, everybody, to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything that we talk about is aimed at helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Bridgette Theuer and, as always, I am joined by my wonderful collaborator and co-host, Irvine Nugent. Irvine, how the heck are you?

Irvine: I’m doing well. Although, I have to say it’s the dog days of summer, and here in DC, we’ve had a few heat indexes of over a hundred. So, not that most people, but me, especially, I do not function well with very hot and humid, I think I still have my Irish blood and so I.

Bridgette: Oh, yeah.

Irvine: Crave for fall to come and a relief to the heat, but we have the gift of air conditioning and thankfully, we have that.

Bridgette: Yeah, the humidity around, it’s August 1st, right?

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: That we’re recording, so, yes, the humidity is in full bloom.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And I like heat, I’m not from Ireland, but even I who like heat, the humidity can, really, start to get on my nerves too, so I appreciate that. Well, our topic for today is, kind of, apropo, because since we can’t change the weather, we must let it go, and in fact, that’s our topic today, right? The art of letting go. And it is an art; it’s a topic that I have been reflecting on for a very, very long time, because I struggle with it. I’m not somebody who easily and artfully and gracefully, always knows how to let go. I’m a clinger.

I wanted to do this episode because I wanted to learn, I figured, well, if we do, it’s, kind of, as authors say, write about something you want to learn about. So, do a podcast episode on something you want to get better at, that’s my intent. So, how about you, what’s been your experience with letting go?

Irvine: So, I love this because it forced me to reflect a little bit as well. And I think there’s a part of self-delusion within me, because I think there’s a part of me that thinks that I’m very good at forgiving, I’m very good at letting go. But I think when I face cold reality, the reality is, that at times I hold on to things and, for me, it’s holding on to personal slights, or at least in my eyes, personal slights of other people, et cetera, and I find it comes up with an energy at times, I’m thinking, oh my God, I thought I dealt with this. And here it is. And it’s reassuring that it’s not just me, it’s also you.

But I think with clients as well, I think clients struggle and every now and again, in the midst of a coaching conversation, a client will say something and there’s this, aha, wow, I’ve been holding on to this for a number of years. And it was a conversation, perhaps, that didn’t go the way they wanted it to, or even sometimes it’s a throwaway comment.

Bridgette: Ah.

Irvine: And we have read this huge story into it and it’s just taken a life of its own and we can’t let it go. So, I think it’s such an important practice and such an important discussion. And part of it, I think, as we always do, is grounded in the fact that we are human beings who are made for survival. And so, we like to control our environment, because controlling our environment helps us, it’s helped us to survive, and when we feel threatened, the last thing we want to do is let go. So, there is within us, and it’s important, I think for us to realize that this survival instinct has served us, but at times, as well, it gets in the way and maybe the invitation is letting go.

So, maybe an important question to ask, Bridgette, as we start this conversation is, why is it important for leaders? Why is this an essential skill, that perhaps letting go creates better leadership?

Bridgette: Yeah, it’s a really good question, because we’re claiming that it’s an essential skill for leaders and just for life, to navigate life, and I think part of it is embedded in what you just said there, which is that anxiety makes us do the opposite. Anxiety makes us grip the steering wheel tighter, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: I think about driving home in the middle of a storm and my hands are clenched around the wheel and then I, kind of, look at my fist and I’m like, well, this isn’t helping me drive better.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, at the end of the day, it’s about learning when and where and how to loosen our leadership grip, right? That’s not easy, because I work with a lot of business owners and entrepreneurs. And in the beginning of their businesses, they are in control, they are holding that steering wheel, pretty darn tightly and for good reason, right?

Irvine: Yep.

Bridgette: But if you want to scale and grow your organization beyond you, you’re going to have to let other people drive sometimes; you’re going to have to loosen the steering wheel grip a bit. And that’s tough, and I remember an example of a client company I worked with about 10 years ago, and there were three founders. And so, as founders, this company was their baby. And that’s how they treated it. And they had put so much sweat equity into it, but they were trying to grow it and, really, mature it, but their natural impulse to want to control everything, kept the organization from growing and scaling properly.

And they had a hard time letting go of their areas of responsibility, but they also, this was interesting, a new CEO, was brought in to oversee the three founders, and talk about troubles with letting go.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: They, really, couldn’t let go enough to let the CEO do what the CEO was supposed to do, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, scaling and growing our organizations, if you want to do that, then learning when and how to let go is going to be absolutely vital.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: You can’t get there without that. So, that’s the first thing that came to my mind, Irvine, but what do you think, are there other reasons that letting go is essential to leadership or what comes to your mind?

Irvine: Yeah. I love that first idea as well. I think one other idea that comes to my mind, is the fact that the ability to be open to the fact that there are other ways of doing things. Because so often, when we get into a mentality, especially when we want to control or drive or get things done, we live in a society where it’s get things done, and at times we miss, potential, other ways of doing it; at times, potentially, we miss other voices and we know that better decisions are made when everyone’s voice is heard.

And so, I think part of that letting go is that it doesn’t have to be my way. That there may, well, be other ways of getting to be that I hadn’t considered. And one thing just comes to mind is, my God, how many times before COVID did people say, wouldn’t it be a wonderful idea if we could have some remote work. And the answer to it was, absolutely not, this is not a possibility, it’ll destroy the work culture, we’ll never get things done. And all of a sudden COVID, kind of, well, we didn’t let go, we, kind of, had to let go, it, kind of, gripped us, but all of a sudden there’s this awareness, oh my God, things can get done.

And productivity in certain sectors improves. so there was this ability to be open, so, I think letting go helps us, perhaps, look at other areas. And I think even, personally, I do a lot of work around emotional intelligence, and when COVID came, I said, oh, there’s just no way I could do virtual teaching with this. This has to be in person. And it was a block. It was a real block for a number of months before I gave it up, and then this ability to think, you know what? It’s amazing. The virtual space, actually, allows for certain gifts that I thought weren’t there at the beginning.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: So, I think this whole idea of exploration of other ways can, really, be aided with the letting go.

Bridgette: Yeah. Because what it does is opens up new possibilities, right? If you’re so busy, I’m thinking, what comes to mind as you were speaking, is a person on a flying trapeze, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And they’re gripping that bar and they can’t let go and the other bar is coming in but they can’t grab the other bar because, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, it’s, really, about what are new possibilities that have weighed us, if we can let go, at least, of one hand, maybe not both, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And the other analogy that comes to mind is that it’s like pruning a tree or a bush of dead branches, or like, I was on vacation recently and I had somebody water my plants, but when I came back, they looked really crappy. And I realized, part of the reason is I hadn’t been pruning them. I hadn’t been clipping off those dead flowers and buds, and there wasn’t any room behind that for new flowers to grow. So, yeah, it’s essential because new possibilities are not, really, accessible to us without also letting go of the old, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, I don’t know, Irvine, can you think of, in your own personal life, a time, in particular, when you, really, had to let go in order to grab a hold of something new or when you struggled to, even though you’re pretty good at it, I think?

Irvine: Well, one thing comes to mind and it’s not this huge thing, but it was a habit that I had that I became aware of, and the habit was when someone would ask me a question like, do you know about such and such, or have you heard about, or have you read? Instinctually within me, I would say, yes. Even though I hadn’t.

Bridgette: Ah.

Irvine: And as I explored that it was this need to be in control, this need to feel confident, this need to feel read, this need to be the expert. As I thought about that, what did I lose? And I love this idea of the trapeze because, I think what I was losing, was the opportunity for a wonderful conversation.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: Slowly but surely, I began to catch myself in that habit and it was okay to let go of needing to be the expert. And it was okay to show up as the learner. And that I didn’t have to have the pressure of knowing everything in my role. And it did, it opened some great conversations as people were able to share, and it seems at the moment, as I look back, though, so simple and yet it had such a powerful hold on me.

Bridgette: Well, thank you for sharing that, what a great example. Because we all do things like that, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And the question is, it’s not until we take a deeper look at what’s behind that. That we’re able to let go, because then we see, oh, there’s something on the other side if I let go of this.

Irvine: Yeah. So, I think in our work with clients, we have all these recurring themes of things that we need to learn to let go off. So, maybe it’s a good transition that, to ask that, and what are some of the things, because I’m sure it’s not everything, but what are some of the main things we need to let go of? What do you think, Bridgette?

Bridgette: Yeah. Well, certainly, it’s not everything, because I’m sure even mentioning letting go is anxiety producing for some of our listeners, right? These are folks that are successful, they make things happen, they push, they pull, they cajole, right? And that’s, sort of, the opposite impulse of letting go; so, no, it’s not about letting go everywhere of everything. But I think the very first place to look, and this is a theme that comes up in coaching, at least for me, is might we need to let go of the need to control; the need to control people, projects, outcomes.

Now, again, we naturally as human beings and as leaders, we want to be in control of our day and our schedule and our calendar, and we do want to exercise control over projects, right? But there’s a difference between exercising proper control and becoming controlling.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: That is a, really, important distinction because when we try to control people and relationships, it always backfires. Because we just don’t, right? We don’t like being controlled.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And when we try to control outcomes and projects too tightly, we rob people of the opportunity to do their own best thinking.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: It’s like there’s no space for that. And so, instead of people coming up with their own ways of doing things, it’s like what you were saying earlier, can we allow people to do things their way and not, necessarily, our way. So, I think inside of every successful leader is a hidden little control freak. And who wants to admit that, right?

Irvine: Yeah, totally.

Bridgette: But I just think there’s a little bit of that, and so one place to let go is in this need to be controlling of people, projects, and outcomes. What else, Irvine? Where else or what else?

Irvine: Yeah, I think another area that’s very evident both in my own life and then in people that I work with is letting go of some emotions and grievances that we’ve had. We’re emotional beings and emotions, we we’ve talked in a previous episode about triggering emotions, and we can trigger and retrigger emotions, and so it’s, really, important to be able to not. So, I want to make a distinction here. This is a letting go and not a suppression. So, very often, we talked about anger last week, and sometimes anger, we have these stories about anger, anger is bad, et cetera. And so, what we said there was, no, there’s a message; there’s a gift in the emotion.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: And then it’s like, okay, message received. And then there comes a point, now it has served its purpose and now I need to let it go.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: So, one of the emotions, I think is fear, so often fear can rule our lives. We can be fearful about something, and we have a message about this, if we do something or we act in a certain way, this ability to be able to, kind of, let go of the fear and, maybe, then look at it in a different way and summon up some courage, can be important or even anger or resentment. How often do we hold on to resentment because of something that’s happened and it’s our story and it’s gripping us and it’s, really, impacting how we show up and impacting our relationships.

Bridgette: Those could be some of the hardest things to let go of, don’t you think?

Irvine: Oh God, yes, absolutely. And I think part of that is, first of all, the recognition that it’s there and then in some way, trying to detach a little bit and just to bring, we’ve talked about this before, bring curiosity. And just, almost to detach the emotion from us and just to look at it. Wow, look at that. Look at that fear or look at that resentment what’s that about? And just to spend some time, and I think it’s part of spending the time and then detaching ourselves in the lead-up to being able to, kind of, let it go.

Bridgette: Yeah. That is an art, isn’t it?

Irvine: It is.

Bridgette: I think sometimes we think we’ve let go, but, really, what we’ve done is suppress it or squelched it.

Irvine: Oh, yeah.

Bridgette: Whenever anybody says, it is what it is.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: I always go, okay. Maybe haven’t received the message yet and let it go.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, that’s another important place for us to investigate, right?

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely. So, Bridgette, any other thing that comes to mind or any other area that comes to mind when you think about this sense of letting go?

Bridgette: I do. I think one of the most important and most difficult things for leaders to let go of, is the need to be liked, the need to be beloved and popular and just so well thought of, it’s a basic human need, who doesn’t want to be liked. But, in terms of leading from a place of strength and leading with resilience, that’s something we have to work on; we can’t grip that too tightly because it interferes with our ability to do and say and decide unpopular things. And we’ve talked a lot about leading with conviction.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: In this podcast. And so, letting go of the need to be liked allows us the space to lead with greater conviction. I don’t know, any thoughts come to your mind, Irvine, about how one does that, though, it’s easier said than done, right?

Irvine: Yeah. But, boy, do I feel guilty on that one? That is something I’ve always struggled with in leadership, is the wanting to be liked. I think part of it is, for me, what’s helped is this ability, I think, to realize a connection to the, normally, what happens is, we’re normally dealing with one person, and we make decisions because we want to be liked by that one person.

Bridgette: Oh, yeah.

Irvine: And what I try and do is then, how’s this impacting the greater whole. And to realize that I am leading the whole organization and not just one person.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And I think that has helped me as well to ask some great questions, but it is very difficult.

Bridgette: Yeah. And maybe just right behind that is letting go of, or maybe even in front of it, is letting go of an identity.

Irvine: Wow, yeah.

Bridgette: That’s a big one. Because our identities are our skins.

Irvine: Yep.

Bridgette: And we don’t shed our skin very easily. And thinking of identities that we have that maybe are, sometimes we’re conscious of it, but sometimes it’s just beneath conscious awareness, meaning the way we define ourselves; the way we see ourselves, that’s our identity and we want to protect it. So, let’s say for example, you, kind of, reminded me of this when you were speaking earlier. Let’s say we have an identity as a subject matter expert, somebody who’s the go-to, who knows all the answers about X, Y, and Z. And then we start to get promoted into supervisory management, leadership positions. And we have a hard time letting go, because the identity and the rewards and the success and the track record come from being a subject matter expert.

Irvine: Yep.

Bridgette: And now we’re leading other SMEs, you know?

Irvine: Yep.

Bridgette: And we don’t have all the answers. And that can be very, very challenging, so I’m curious, Irvine, have you ever coached somebody who had to let go of one identity and embrace another in order to move forward, does that ring true?

Irvine: Yeah. One person comes to mind, it was a really interesting case, and it was in an organization where it was a non-profit where there had been a founder in place for 20 years. And then this person who I was coaching was their COO, the number two, and had been there for 10 years.

Bridgette: Wow.

Irvine: And in that role, the founder was a very charismatic, powerful person, a little controlling and, really, the role of the CO had been, kind of, almost, servant and helper, kind of, thing, because the energy was just so big and they’d never, really, defined anything apart from that. And so, when the founder left and, kind of, retired and they became the CEO, they took over; it was a very difficult transition because this identity that they’d had. And so, in other words, it was like, well, I just feel I have to continue being the helping person.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: Because people have always come to me when they felt they couldn’t come to the CEO because they were such a powerful person. And so, this has served me well, and it’s got me here. And then we had to, really, talk about, well, is this what’s needed now?

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And a lot of these questions, well, how do I take over from a legend and et cetera, I can’t be that person, et cetera. And I said, well, no one’s asking you to be that person. And so, it was a process of, really, them defining the role they wanted. And what was good, what did they want to take from the role that they had and what needed to change in this particular moment. And there were a lot of doubt and fears, et cetera, a little bit about needing to be liked came up as well.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: But it took him about four or five months to, really, begin to define, kind of, what leadership looked like for them.

Bridgette: Yeah. You know what’s interesting? I’m listening to you, and I do not know why this popped into my head, but it did, which is, perhaps, a little bit of a struggle that I had letting go of an identity. So, as I was sharing with you earlier, before we started recording, I’m about to become a grandmother for the third time. So, I’m going to have three grandchildren and it is truly, as they say, it’s the best thing ever. But when I found out that my daughter four and a half years ago was going to have a child, so this is my first grandchild, right?

And, of course, I’m thrilled. And yet, come to think of it, it’s an identity shift, because I’ve always defined myself as a young and vibrant and exuberant full of life, kind of, person; I’m not a grandma.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And just, kind of, beginning to let, not let go of being vibrant, I could still be vibrant, right? But to, really, embrace this new role as a grandmother, took a little identity shifting, a little letting go and a little grabbing on, and it’s not easy.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: We’re talking about some pretty deep stuff, but if we’re going to continue to grow as leaders, if we’re going to mature, if we’re going to take on new roles and new responsibilities; I bet several times in our career, letting go of one identity and defining and embracing another is going to be part and parcel of that, right? All right. So, let’s get down to brass-tax here. So, we’re talking about letting go. Oh, yeah, it sounds good. Yes, we see why it’s important. But how do we do it or what has to, actually, be in place for leaders to, really, loosen their leadership grip?

Irvine: Yeah. For me, I think the first thing that comes to mind is that we have to have confidence in the people around us, so part of that is, taking a look at the team that we’ve assembled, because I think if we don’t have confidence then it’s going to, really, impact our ability to let go. And sometimes we have to attempt to put the right people in the right places. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds, and, especially, in the past couple of years with hiring issues as well; it’s been difficult to hire the right people, and I think we have to acknowledge that.

But I think overall, I think a leader needs to think about; can I trust and have confidence in the people around me? And can I give more to them? Can I let go, what do I need to let go off? So that I’m ready to do things that I otherwise could not, I think that’s the key there.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: It’s not just so much letting the control, it’s also opening up just like that trapeze, into what now might I be able to do, that I have given; some other things are delegated to the team.

Bridgette: Oh, yeah. That’s so important. And, yes, you’re right that there are still some gaps, in terms of having the right people on the team, residual from COVID and so forth. But what I would invite our listeners to consider is, is it really so that you can’t trust or in-trust the people that you currently have, right? Because I think we can get into a pattern, a habit of not trusting, and let’s talk about delegating; that’s really what you were speaking to there is where could we delegate more so that we can then grab hold of the things that only we can do in our role. That’s really key.

And then the other thing I’m thinking about is, pushing decision-making down to the people closest to the process. That’s another way we can let go, and I am thinking about a client that I coached in his transition from COO to CEO, and this was one of his mantras. So, he led a large organization, and it was burdensome and bureaucratic, because people at headquarters wanted to make all the decisions for all the people in the field, you know? And he’s like, no, no, no, no, no, we have to let go of that. We need to push decision-making down to the people who are closest to the process, who understand and see and know best what is needed.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And, again, that gets back to some level of trust, doesn’t it?

Irvine: Yep. Oh, absolutely.

Bridgette: Again, not easy. So, we’re talking about letting go of the need to be liked. That’s tough. Letting go of identities, letting go of the desire to control. It’s multifaceted, isn’t it, Irvine?

Irvine: Yeah. So, there’s been very rich conversation here about all the different facets of that letting go, we’ve talked about how challenging it is, basically, because as human beings, we are anxious at times and anxiety gets in the way of letting go, because this helps us survive. And yet we know that part of leadership success is this ability to let go, and we’ve just recapped in some of the ideas of what we might need to let go of. Now, we always end our episodes with a practice; so, Bridgette, is there a core practice you might want to suggest here that might help our listeners get even better at the art of letting go?

Bridgette: Yeah. So, this is, actually, a somatic practice, so it doesn’t just live in our head, this is to get the idea of letting go into our bodies, because it’s one thing to talk about it, and it’s another thing to do it, right? And I call this practice loosening our leadership grip. So, I’m just going to walk our listeners through it, okay. And I know people listen to podcasts while they’re running or walking or on the treadmill or whatever, be that as it may, here’s how this practice goes, and it’s, really, about getting in touch with the energy and effort we expend when we are holding onto something so very tightly. When we are gripping it with all of our might. So here’s how it works.

So, if you can, get a pencil or a pen or any object that you have on hand and open up your hand, flat palm and put that pen or object right there in the middle of your open palm. And now I want you to close your fist around it and grip it with all of your might. So, you are, really, clinging and clenching tightly to that pen or pencil in your hand. And you’re noticing as you do, that the longer you have to hold that grip, the more energy you expend in doing it. You’re, really, bringing your attention to that fist that you’re making and what do you notice about what it takes to continue to grip something.

And now use your imagination to look at what you’re gripping right now, that pencil or pen, as that grievance you have yet to let go of, that emotion that is lingering, that project that you are controlling, that person who you are trying to will them to change. And now just relax the grip, let it go. Open up your hand and allow that pen to just rest in the palm of your hand. Notice that you can even move your hand around and that pen’s not going anywhere, you’re still holding it, you’re still influencing it, it’s still in your sights.

But the energy needed to just hold it with ease in the open palm of your hand is dramatically different. And what might it make possible for us if we could do the same thing with the places where we are gripping with all of our might. So, that’s our practice and, Irvine, I’m just curious if while you were listening to me, maybe you were doing it yourself, I don’t know, but what?

Irvine: I was, I’m gripping my red pen here and that’s such a powerful, visceral exercise. I love it. I could just feel the blood rushing to my fingers when I let go. And it just brought to mind, kind of, the energy that’s expended, is the time we don’t think of that energy and then the release and I think the wonderful power of that ability to release. Very powerful. Well, thank you for that practice, Bridgette, thank you for today’s episode. This has got me thinking, I am walking away today and I’m going to think about some areas in my life that perhaps I need to put more thought into letting go and what energy am I expanding on them.

So, we hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode. Remember, please subscribe. Remember, if there’s someone who you think the content of this episode would really resonate with, please share it with them. We’re also very open to your own ideas, thoughts, suggestions. We have a specific email for the podcast, which is, resilientleadershippodcast@gmail.com. Please feel free to email us. And our next episode, we’re going to talk about the intersection of spirituality and leadership and we’re looking forward to that conversation as well. So, Bridgette, thank you so much. Great speaking with you today.

Bridgette: Thank you, Irvine.

Irvine: Yeah. And to all our listeners as well, have a wonderful week ahead and we look forward to being with you in our next episode.

Bridgette: Have a great day, folks.

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