It’s that time of year when the leaves are turning from their familiar greens to vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow. With this striking change, nature reminds us how beautiful the act of letting go can be. This adaptation to environmental change is inherent to the dynamic design of living systems. But humans often resist change, clinging to the comforts of the familiar. As a result, many leaders manage their organizations as static, closed systems, where the boundaries of the systems are solid and controlled. This mindset creates a toxic complacency where progress is stalled and the organization – a living system – degenerates.
Take it from the trees
Deciduous trees are naturals at letting go. As cold weather starts to arrive and the days grow shorter, trees activate a hormone to start the process of release. Chlorophyll production is stopped and nutrients are no longer delivered to the leaf. This causes the leaves’ green pigment to fade, revealing the bright colors that were hidden underneath. A layer of cells forms between the stem of the leaf and the branch to sever its tie to the tree, and the leaf falls. This release is intentional and controlled. But why?
I dedicated an entire chapter of my book, Leading from the Roots, to this concept – that nature fits form to function. The trees are proactively adapting to the changing temperatures to prepare for a period of dormancy. Broad, thin leaves, if left on the branches throughout the cold winter months, would actually threaten the tree’s survival. Freezing temperatures prevent photosynthesis, rendering the leaves useless on the branches. The unproductive leaves would only put the tree at a higher risk of breakage from wind and snow. Moreover, the shed layer of leaves serves a nutritive purpose in regrowth for the spring, which requires much energy from the tree. For the trees, environmental change is not a disruption to be mourned or ignored. It is simply a fact of life that is acknowledged and adapted to.
Adopting the adaptive outlook
The natural process of release is part of all living systems – and that includes our organizations. Change is inevitable and necessary for growth and progress. As leaders, we need to embrace this growth mindset in approaching both planned releases and unexpected losses. In an organization, deliberately letting go includes decisions to eliminate or phase out programs, procedures, products or other systems that no longer serve the whole. Even unanticipated drops, like lost clients, partnerships or employees, create opportunity for positive change. In a fixed mindset, though, emotional barriers – often vibrant hues of anger, frustration and sadness – typically accompany letting go; resistance and bitterness follow. However, when the organization is perceived as a complex, living system, these changes are better understood and welcomed, and drama is minimized.
The old Darwin notion – adapt or die
Letting go is certainly helpful for facilitating an organizational culture that embraces change. But it is also necessary for survival in a competitive, digital landscape. Just as we aim to follow nature’s example in our own organizations, the greater business marketplace also functions as a living, moving system. And it, too, will curb excess from within by letting go of entities that no longer serve the whole. Your organization could be one of those naturally released if you do not regularly adapt your systems and offerings for survival. This includes cutting the practices in your organization that are no longer productive or efficient. It means assessing and letting go of the parts – however revered or longstanding – that have lost their relevance. This perspective brings a more informed awareness of our ever-changing culture and how our organizations best fit into that culture.
Interdependence and regrowth
Only when we lead with a view of adaptation and growth will we begin to appreciate and even initiate inevitable changes within our organizations. The irony of this mindset is that by being more accepting of separation, we actually become more connected to our organizations as leaders. We recognize our leadership as an interdependent part to the whole and our organizations as pieces of a greater, fluid system. Like the trees in autumn, effective leaders consciously release organizational leaves, preparing for the regrowth of spring and sustaining the life of the organization for the future.