For the Record, Sting Was Right

5 minute read

Free, free, set them free…

We’ve talked before in our posts about the nature of the leader-follower relationship, specifically around the psychology of “followership.” To re-cap, for a leader to have followers, the would-be leader has to understand what motivates the would-be follower. The leader must understand where their follower wants to go and how they hope to go about getting there—not just in their career, but in life in general.

To that end, the follower has to also have the perception that their leader is committed to helping them get where they want to go, even if it means leaving the leader’s team, department, or the organization entirely. And the truth is, the effective 21st Century Leader indeed has to be willing to let them go, if that’s what they want to do.

I’ve seen this played out on both sides of the coin numerous times, both in my own career and in the process of coaching other executives. Those with strong leadership sensibility are willing to help subordinates move into new roles the subordinates perceive will help them progress, up to and including leaving.

Conversely, I’ve seen “quasi-leaders” (and I use ‘quasi’ because this is not true leadership behavior) be unwilling to let someone go. I’ve seen folks try to hold onto followers, take steps to sabotage or block them from leaving, or even block other leaders who had an interest in the “follower” from having access to that person. Almost invariably, this situation plays out that the follower winds up leaving anyway, because an indirect consequence of not letting a subordinate be free to go is that person’s disengagement, because they rightfully perceive that the leader is not committed to them. The “leader’s” attempt to retain the value of that employee for their own use ultimately backfires, as the employee will figure out a way to escape, one way or another.

Again, the reason that is going to happen is because the psychology of the leader-follower relationship is rooted in the follower’s perception that the leader is completely committed to helping them get where they want to go and become who they want to be. That dynamic is non-negotiable if any person is to be a leader—it’s mission-critical. I should also point out this understanding is essential to the managerial role, as well. While leadership and management aren’t the same thing, they do overlap in some important ways, and this is one.

What gets in the way of setting them free?

First and foremost is having someone in a key role, and fearing the consequences of their absence—the inevitable inefficiencies and ineffectiveness that ensue when a key or indispensable person is lost. Interestingly, famous management scientist Peter Drucker reportedly said that an indispensable person was the ultimate management failure. He based that on the fact of business life that, sooner or later, everybody leaves.

For a manager/wannabe leader to go all in on their commitment to help those they would lead get where they want to go, they must regularly succession plan. In fact, everyone on the team should be cross-training with one another, and each position on the team should have a succession plan in place.

Managerial ego is a second reason why leaders resist letting folks leave. It’s a long-held truism that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. More often than not, that does seem to be the case. If we are reminded of the idea that all human behavior is in service of certain human wants, needs, and values, then it follows that when someone leaves, it’s because they perceive they’re not getting their wants, needs, and/or values met in their current situation.

In this scenario, the manager fears her subordinates’ departure is purely a reflection on her. She fears others will infer that she’s a bad leader and her people want to get away from her. More often than not, this issue of fundamental insecurity is accompanied by substandard results, lack of effective or efficient operation on the team, lack of trust and goodwill on the team, and other leadership red flags. In reality, a mass exodus from any team is a symptom, not the problem.

Sometimes people leave organizations due to things beyond their leader’s control. It’s one of the painful realities of leadership that if they still need to leave—even after we’ve exhausted everything we can do to keep them—we have to be willing to amenably let them go. Remember, if the follower gets any hint that we would try to restrict their growth or try to restrict them from gaining new experience purely for our own self-serving purposes, then the leader-follower dynamic is effectively dead, and as we discussed above, disengagement will ensue.

The final scenario of reluctance to let go is a more positive one. Sometimes it’s just the attachment of friendship and comradery that gets in the way of being able to happily send someone off to their next adventure. But we all know, the answer is the same even in friendship; we’ve all heard Sting croon about how if you love someone, let them go.

Of course, there is a paradox here, in that a key component of 21st Century Leadership is attracting and retaining the right people. It’s true that when team members are hemorrhaging from a particular unit, it raises eyebrows on high. But in order to retain team members, ultimately the perspective has to exist that as a result of staying with us, subordinates are going to continue to develop, even if it reaches a point that the next developmental step requires leaving to take on a new role or gain new experience.

As Virgin Group founder Richard Branson so famously said, “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

That way, when your team member does finally leave your team, it will be bittersweet. You’ll both know they’re leaving with the knowledge that you had their back every step of the way. They’ll be more likely to bring their skills, strengths, and vision back to your team someday in a new role, or even back to their original role, if the new role turns out to not be the right fit for them, because they intrinsically understand that you care about them.

For this week- Conduct a mental inventory of your team. Which subordinates are you most resistant to leaving? Why? Do you have succession plans in place for your team members? Whose skills would hurt you the most to lose? Make a plan to start cross-training on those skills this week!