By definition a leader is someone who can foresee a possible future. Leaders usually then equip people with the strategy and motivation to achieve that future.
This is why people who speak about leadership talk so much about the capacity to focus on the (possible) future. It really is that important. Without it, you're not a leader; you're a "status quo-er." You're a survivalist, a maintenance-keeper. This kind of person isn't necessarily bad. In fact, the person who takes care of the way "things are" and maintains the status quo is called a steward. This role isn't worthless or bad at all. It's just that they're not leaders. Not at all. Why? Because they're not focused on the future.
And there is one thing that leaders must be able to do in order to focus on the future:
Let go of the past as soon as it gets in the way.
If you, as a leader, can’t let go of “the way it used to be” or “the way it worked last year,” then you will almost certainly ruin your organization. You will. Embrace that fact. Let that sink in. Not being able to let go of anything that gets in the way of your projected future is one of the most devastating things a leader can do. Why? Because the world around you is changing right now. The future is on its way whether you're prepared for it or not.
A popular expression used among certain leaders is "healthy things grow." As usual, these aphorisms are always somewhat true, but in their application, must be nuanced. This is why I don't use them. You have nuance them so much that it's useless to begin with.
But, whatever. Let's think about how growth works in living things. . .say, plants. It's amazing how it relates to healthy leadership.
First of all, nearly every living thing has a genetic limit. It's limited by DNA. Grass doesn't grow to the moon. Elephants don't grow to the size of apartment buildings. My stomach doesn't grow as big as. . . well, I'm working on it. So, the assumption that "healthy things grow" means that they must keep on growing indefinitely is simply false. This is exactly true with organizations. They don't grow forever. It's certainly possible that yours can grow more than it is right now. I don't know. But, eventually, it will reach its limit. Your organization won't grow forever. It will have a stopping point. Hopefully, that stopping point is much farther away than you fear.
**Your organization might be extremely healthy and strong, but not expanding in a significant way. It doesn't mean you're a failure or horrible leader. It might just mean that you've reached your "genetic limit." This means you can't equate "healthy" with "growing in numbers." Has your organization reached that limit? If not, get to work "growing" it. Otherwise, increase the quality of what you offer or begin offering other services.
Second, nearly all living organisms excise parts of themselves in order to grow. Humans constantly shed dead skin cells. Plants of all shapes and kinds practice something called "abscission" in order to grow (this is my new favorite word). They drop leaves, branches, flowers, fruit, and other things all the time. To say it once more, they let go of part of themselves in order to grow and be healthy.
There are four main reasons why living things cut off parts of themselves (I had to do some botany research for this, so this is golden): (a) some things get corrupted, poisoned, or die; (b) some things (like damaged leaves) take up too much energy or resources for the remaining needs of the plant; (c) sometimes it actually defends the plant (like premature leaf abscission to fight aphids infestations) and (d) some things are simply unnecessary if their environment has changed. In order to survive the future, they must let go of things that get in the way.
Interestingly, these are the exact four reasons why healthy, successful leaders let go of the past and focus on the future. Using the four main reasons concerning plants I just gave as a helpful analogy, let's think some more about this:
(a) Some people or plans or groups get corrupted or poisoned. These always--always--drain your leadership and organization of energy and focus. Worse still, they infect others. Gangrene spreads and kills; it never spreads and invigorates and causes new life.
**Who in your organization is toxic? Who is pessimistic? Who gossips and tears down? Who changes the mood in the room for the negative when s/he walks in? What project or division needs to be cut off? Is it you? Are you the toxic person? If it can't be fixed (and you've already tried), it's time for abscission. It's time to let it go.
(b) Some people or plans or groups take up too much energy or focus. Don't ever forget: your energy, time, and focus is limited. It's like a pie: when you give away slices of yourself, or when your company gives away a slice of its resources, it's at a cost. A part of the pie is now gone. You can't focus effectively on the future of the company if you're constantly bogged down. You need the most amount of resources focused on the vision.
**Is there a person who requires constant supervision or management? Is there a group that constantly needs resources and encouragement but is distracting toward your vision? If it can't be fixed (and you've already tried), it's time for abscission. It's time to let it go.
(c) Some people or plans or groups make you and your organization vulnerable. They are done "half baked" or "half led." They might be helpful a little bit, but leave you and the organization at risk for going in the wrong direction. This is especially true when companies add new products or services when they don't really have the resources to do so. There's a reason why Steve Jobs cut off so many unnecessary projects of Apple when he returned: he needed the company to get focused on its strengths and the future. Look how that turned out for that company. . .
**Is there a person or group that leaves you vulnerable to wasting time, energy, focus, money, drive, lawsuits, or anything else? If it can't be fixed (and you've already tried), it's time for abscission. It's time to let it go.
(d) This last one will take another essay to develop, but it's enough now to emphasize that when environments change, it's time to let go of the "way it was." Organizations and people can change, yes. But also, communities change, the economy changes, worldviews change. It's like a river that's flowing underneath everyone and no one can stop it. Something that was cutting edge and effective last month now might be passe.
**What in your life or organization is simply no longer necessary? Is there a person or group that did fulfill something vital last decade or last month but is no longer necessary? If it's no longer needed, it's time for abscission. It's time to let it go.
Why let go of the past? It might have (a) gotten corrupted, (b) begun taking up too many resources, (c) made you and your organization vulnerable, or (d) simply become unnecessary because the environment has changed.
Let go of the past as soon as it gets in the way.
Think about all the things that have changed in your organization: people who have come and gone, hardware and software that has come and gone, systems that used to be in place that couldn't possibly work now, the economy, your staff, your volunteers, your experiences, and on and on. Change is inevitable. If you, as a leader, can’t let go of “the way it used to be” or “the way it worked last year,” then you will almost certainly ruin your organization. Not being able to let go of anything that gets in the way of your projected future is one of the most devastating things a leader can do.
Is it really difficult for you to let go of the past, even if it gets in the way of your future? What drives that reluctance? Why is it so hard? What about your people? Are they clinging too hard to the past? How do you lead them to focus on the future when the past gets in the way? We'll discuss that in a future essay.