Let Go Of Control

Letting go is the first step of Barefoot Leadership. When we let go of control …

  • We gain the courage to live in sync with our convictions
  • We choose to unlace the tangled knots in our life that hold us 
  • We count the cost, and we choose to move forward, despite an 
uncertain future.

There is a price to pay for not letting go of control. By seeking a safe and controlled environment …

  • We become complacent and never venture out of the comfort zone
  • We fear the unknown
  • We deceive ourselves into thinking that risks and unknowns can 
be managed.

It is normal for good managers and leaders to be excellent planners. The leaders I interviewed, for example, have managed companies that employ thousands of staff, provide jobs to millions of people, and serve food to countless thousands on a daily basis.

Great leaders resist the temptation to turn their personal lives into a plan.

But what sets great leaders apart from the rest is that they resist the temptation to turn their personal lives into a plan. Instead they live with openness to new possibilities. Barefoot Leaders go where few have trodden … even if it leads to less pay, more insecurity, and an ambiguous future. For most of us, this is counter-intuitive.

“It is dangerous to talk about letting go of control,” Ishak, a former top executive in the world’s largest plantation company, warned me. “We need controls.”

He recounted a story of how senior managers in his company were not kept accountable for their actions, which resulted in billion- dollar losses and lawsuits. Ishak, a seasoned strategist and previously on the fast track to the executive suite, was sidelined due to his links to the old regime. All the trappings of power – including the chauffeured limousine – seemed hollow to him. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” he told me, as we ate cocktail sausages at a leadership conference.

Ishak (not his real name) was in an unenviable position. And yet there was something redemptive about this. “Now that you’re no longer in control of things, you gain the time you’ve always craved to do some soul-searching and discover your calling in life,” I replied.

Letting go of control is the first and most essential task of pursuing a life of extraordinary leadership. At some point in their careers, the leaders I interviewed told me they learned to say no to conventional success. They decided to stop attempting to impose complete order on their lives. This required an existential decision to let go of control.

Jim Collins, the management guru and author of Good to Great, has written that organisations are by their very nature messy. “All attempts to impose complete order and predictability will ultimately fail,” he concluded. “Learn, adapt, change, evolve, grow … but don’t ever expect to have things under control or to know fully where you’re going.”1

Great leaders do not control people, nor do they attempt to control their own lives.

Great leaders do not control people, nor do they attempt to control their own lives. They are able to live with the ambiguity of not knowing what comes next. They choose to become radically open to the twists and turns, the ups and downs, the obstacles and opportunities, that comprise the elements of an extraordinary life.


1Jim Collins, “The Classics,” Jim Collins, entry posted December 1996, http://www.jimcollins.com/ article_topics/articles/the-classics.html (accessed July 23, 2011).

This article is an excerpt from “Barefoot Leadership: The Art and Heart of Going That Extra Mile” by Alvin Ung.