How to Let Go to Make Room for Leadership

By Alexandra Frost

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

    Table of contents

Some leaders struggle to leave their old responsibilities behind after a promotion. Here’s how experts recommend you open up the full possibilities of your new leadership role, and learn to let go.

Mapbox via Unsplash.
Mapbox via Unsplash.

Congratulations — you got a promotion! And now you may be figuring out just what your new responsibilities are in your new role, and even how to train another employee for your old role. But what about that passion project you’ve been working on for years that it’s time to hand over to your freshly appointed replacement? What will they do with all that work you’ve done? And what about that mentorship you’ve developed with a key team member? Will they watch out for them like you have?

It can be a serious struggle to let go of your old responsibilities to pursue new horizons, especially if you are someone who puts your heart into your work. But it’s also essential, to open up the full possibilities of your new leadership role. Here’s how experts recommend you make that happen, and learn to let go.

Acknowledge that change can be scary

It’s worth taking a beat to understand why you might be hesitant to let go of your old responsibilities, and to turn over meaningful work to someone else. Stephanie Bolster McCannon, organizational psychologist and wellness coach, told The Org that some people eagerly let go of the past role, while others can get “stuck” in the transition of passing the baton.

“Transition, even when desired, can be scary. The key to letting go is addressing the loss associated with the past role, celebrating successes in that role, and addressing what the new tasks are versus what is not being delegated,” she said. “The feeling of wanting to control the old needs to be addressed and is common. Like raising a child, it's a bitter-sweet feeling to let go and trust. It really boils down to the identity of the old role versus the new.”

Start by discussing with a trusted friend, partner or colleague your feelings associated with letting go, and even take a second to grieve or celebrate your old role and all it taught you.

Identify if you are someone who struggles to delegate

We live in a “women can do it all culture,” which sometimes is empowering, and sometimes backfires. McCannon said that research has pointed to women being “less likely to engage in delegating than male counterparts” though women self-report delegating just as often as men. She also said that research has found women experience more guilt and “fear of backlash” when it comes to delegating. But it’s not only women, and not all women, that might have trouble with this. Anyone can find it difficult to delegate, especially when it’s an emotional process such as a job role change.

But it’s worth identifying if you are struggling, and working to change that: “All leaders who learn to delegate outperform those who do not,” McCannon says.

Akhila Satish, CEO of Meseekna and a 2021 Forbes Next 1000 award winner, told The Org, “Women tend to be more intentionally focused on more of a caretaker or people-centric [role].” In addition, people who are more comfortable being “stretched thin” might have a hard time letting go of old responsibilities. “They’re comfortable multitasking, and quite frankly that may apply within a gender lens as well.” By identifying if you are someone who struggles to delegate, you can take steps to set boundaries for yourself.

Clearly define your old and new roles

If you’ve never logged exactly what you spend your work hours doing in any given week, you are missing out, Satish said. She said that by doing this for your old and new role, you can clearly define what you were doing, should be doing, and where there is overlap. “If you suddenly take a look and you say, ‘Oh my gosh I’m basically not doing this new role at all!’” Satish said, then you have an issue.

She hoped all employees, but especially those transitioning roles, will try simply writing what platforms and tasks they are spending their time on for one week. It can also double as an exceptionally helpful tool for your replacement, who might not know what to do to fulfill your old duties as well. Her hope is that people will use simple pen and paper rather than any tracking tools to increase consciousness of your tasks too. “It’s really helpful to know which platforms you’re spending time on, because you’re going to figure out what the goal is,” she said.

Abide by the boundaries you set for yourself

Setting boundaries can be seriously tough — maybe you commit to no longer checking on that passion project, or doing so only quarterly, to ensure you are well-enough removed to let your replacement have success with it on their own. Maybe you set a date to stop meeting with your replacement, the date that they will fully take over without you. You might even have to let them know that for your own personal boundaries, you need to stop answering questions about the old role, which can blur boundaries, after a certain time.

McCannon says there are three essential steps to moving forward:

  • Plan activities for the transition to the new role
  • Commit to those plans
  • Identify or create structures that support the separation of old versus new role and identity

The boundaries aren’t meant to push you out, but to free you from your old job to make room for the infinite possibilities that are your future, and your next career steps.

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