Leading Change in the 21st Century: The Power of Letting Go

Painting of apples

The story goes that the hunters put an apple in a glass jar with a narrow opening and leave the jar deep into the jungle under a tree. In the evening the monkeys come out of the trees triggered by the alluring fragrance of the apple. They find the jar by following their noses. As soon as a monkey sees the apple in the jar it doesn’t hesitate and puts a hand in and grabs the apple. But when it tries to pull the hand out it gets stuck in the neck of the jar because holding the apple makes the hand too big for the neck. The monkey is caught in an agonizing dilemma: letting go of the apple and having its hand back, or trying over and over to pull the hand and the apple out of the jar. The desire for the apple wins … In the morning when the hunters return they find the jar with the monkey next to it on the ground, exhausted.  Its hand still stuck in the jar. Too exhausted to fight the hunters, too tired to flee. An easy prey.

When I heard this story I was struck by the simplicity of the hunting technique, but even more by the power of its message: how not being able to let go of certain things can have serious consequences.

What does this have to do with leading change? Everything. In my working with leaders and their teams I often witness how successful change, transformation and innovation are hindered by the inability of letting go of what we have or who we are. Not seeing what is possible, what is in front of us, because we are too busy with holding on to what is behind us. Not being able to describe what our vision, our desired future is, other than an extension of our current situation.

Today’s leaders are confronted with a world that is in transformation; with new economies that are emerging; with markets that are rapidly changing; with new technologies that generate new products, services, communication means; with revolutionary changes in connectivity (between societies, market places, companies, and people). The powers between ‘West’ and ‘East’ are shifting and we are much more than before confronted with new cultures. It has a strong impact on companies and their leaders.

As I described in an earlier post What does Change Mean to You? I witness many leaders struggle with this reality. Whether they are involved in mergers and acquisitions, or in global expansion and are coping with other cultural behaviors, rules and values. Whether they are dealing with customers that are becoming much more informed, aware and demanding with respect to topics like customer service, quality, corporate responsibility and sustainability. Whether they are confronted with new generations of talented employees that have totally different views on job, workplace, and work/life balance. What I experience when working with leaders and leadership teams is that, when confronted with these changes, leaders tend to try hard to stick to success formulas of the past. And the more explicit the change presents itself, the stronger this reflex tends to be. They try to extend the current situation as much as possible. They let themselves be dazzled by ‘positive results’ and avoid looking at negative signals. They regard the change as negative or dangerous. Sometimes they even start to cherish followers around them who are not contradictory and silence those who are less accommodating. They block critical thinking. They ignore facts. And it becomes worse when they are led by ego. 

The consequences of this type of blindness can be serious. I remember an example of a sales director of an organization that was acquired by a foreign company. Since the acquisition the sales figures had stagnated and did not meet the objectives of the new owner.  The board sent in its Chief Commercial Officer to analyze the problem and to offer support to the local sales director. I saw how the meeting ended up in a tense debate. The CCO was trying to understand the problems of the sales director, was explaining the support the local team could get from their experienced colleagues from abroad, and he was trying to offer support. The local sales director was mainly explaining that the CCO did not understand their market and their way of working and that his suggestions would not solve the problem. He was convinced of his own way of working because it had always worked in the past and had created their success. The targets and approach of ‘them outsiders’ was just not fitting his team. He only needed some extra time and some patience from the holding and it would turn out fine. The meeting ended with the CCO believing that the sales director was not up for the job and he installed a reporting and supervising procedure to closely follow up on the local operation on a weekly basis. The sales director felt misunderstood, micro-managed, even insulted and he realized he was gradually losing his grip and influence.

The sales director did not see the opportunity this merger offered to him and his team. He did not see that these foreigners had a lot of valuable experience and a broader view on the changes in the market place. He didn’t see the knowledge and expertise they brought in. He did not see the potential synergies. He only saw an interference that was ‘dangerous’ for him and his team. Dangerous for the way of working he was used to and couldn’t let go of.

The bottom line: Not being able to let go of your past, of your past success, of clinging on to it, almost always creates Win-Lose situations! It is blocking the opportunity to develop and grow. The power of successful leaders is that they recognize well in advance when change is going to take place and innovation is needed. They explicitly open up to the unknown, to new influences and cultures. They lead the way in letting go of what was. They focus on creating Win-Win situations. They do this by following three principles:

1.     Being Open – stimulate yourself always to look for the unknown; it will create awareness for changes and opportunities that are coming your way; it will sharpen your view on what is going on in and around your company.

2.     Build Understanding – never reject or judge anything new before you understand it enough; your open mindset will help you find the right questions; it creates respect between people and takes away the fear of the unknown.

3.     Look for Connections / Synergies – always aim at finding and exploiting potential synergies, this is opening the door for win-win situations; it generates motivation and positive energy; it builds trust between people, and generates actions that turn change into sustainable success.

Do you recognize these principles? Which one is most challenging for you? What are the things that your organization should let go of? How do you coach your team in letting go? I’m interested in your view.

Photo: gingerpig2000/Flickr (Creative Commons)


As international business consultant, change leader and executive coach Aad supports companies, their leaders and leadership teams in turning complex change into sustainable results. He works with his clients on topics about business transformation, cross-cultural leadership, post-merger integration, and amplifying business performance. Find out more about Aad and his services.

7 Comments on “Leading Change in the 21st Century: The Power of Letting Go

  1. Great post Ad!
    The question is how you help leaders to let go. While they may understand the principles outlined above, they may not be ready to make the “emotional” step to make the change. Do you have an example of how you dealt with it?

    PS: Loved the metaphor about the monkey and the apple!!!


    • Thanks, Miri. You’re absolutely right about the difference between the rational understanding and the emotional readiness to take the step. It very much depends on the leader’s personality. Also ego can play a blocking role. In my experience it is key to focus on the facts (the real ones, not the fake ones) and on the consequences if these facts continue to exist. In many cases the leader’s perception of the current reality is blurred by false facts. Bringing the real facts into the discussion is an important first step to get people to take actions.

      Enjoy your weekend!


  2. Hi Aad,
    Thanks for the post, it is really pertinent for a client I am working with at the moment. They are struggling with your first principle of being open to new ideas. They are a very well established management team with little outside experience and are reluctant to take the first steps to change. I have put this as not recognising “what good looks like”.

    Being very inward focused you only view the world from your own points of reference. This is where a healthy turnover of staff in an organisation can be really helpful because it brings in fresh ideas from outside the company. Failing this outside consultancy can help but ownership of the change has to be within the organisation.

    I hope you don’t mind but I have ‘reblogged’ your post as your thinking is very much aligned with mine.


    • Hi Paul,
      I like the way you describe your client’s situation. It is very recognizable. Being open is maybe hindered by lack of facts about the current reality or by fear of mistakes, or other reasons, but is surely a prerequisite for successful change.

      Thanks for your comment and for ‘reblogging’.


  3. Pingback: Friday Favs 7.8.11 « Get Your Leadership BIG On!

  4. This is incision into leadership efforts during organisational change. Well written indeed. Survivors of a negative climate need more than coping skills. They need luck and grace of a facilitative intellect and the courage of a committed few to tip the balance in favor of sanity.


  5. Pingback: Leadership Friday Favs 7.8.11 | LeadBIG

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