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When to Let Go

Most of us face challenges we don’t handle well. One of mine was struggling with training other consultants. I found the early stages of training to be fairly easy – demonstrating skills, debriefing strategy sessions, and considering how to handle different situations. The challenge – and my struggle – came when it was time to hand off session leadership to the other consultant.

When that handoff occurs, my role changes. I need to take a back seat. I’m there to provide coaching and guidance – usually after the session. Of course, every new consultant gets into difficult situations. It’s simply part of the role. The consultant needs to struggle through those situations in order to learn and grow.

My struggle was not being able to stay in the back seat. All too often, I would jump in and take over – which is exactly the wrong thing to do! Unless consultants struggle through the whitewater challenges of consulting, they will never get good at what they do. By coming to the rescue, I was responding to my need for control – stunting the other consultant’s growth in the process.

Not surprisingly, I’ve seen similar behavior in “helicopter parents” who don’t allow their sons and daughters to make the decisions and take the actions necessary to grow and mature. I’ve also seen it in organizational leaders who don’t know when it’s time to hand over the reins to a successor.

John the Baptist is a role model for those of us who struggle with letting go – knowing when and how to take a back seat in order to let others come into their own. The Baptist’s life embodies three lessons that provide helpful guidance. He knew who he was, he had the strength to accept transition, and he knew when to get out of the way.

John’s first lesson is knowing who he was – “a man sent from God.” (John 1:6) He was clear about his identity: “He himself was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light.” (John 1:8) The Baptist understood and accepted the role he was called to fulfill. “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness.” (John 1:23) He knew there was one coming after him who was greater than him: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (John 1:28)

John had the humility to grasp his role and carry it out effectively. When priests and Levites asked him who he was, John clearly indicated that he is not the Messiah or Elijah. (John 1:21-22) He could have claimed to be more than the messenger, but he refused: “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1:23) He saw his role clearly – preparing the way for the one coming after him.

When I was training consultants, I lacked John’s clarity about what my role required. To be effective, I needed to keep my ego in check and stay in the back seat. Rather than trying to be the hero and come to the rescue, I needed the humility to bite my tongue and resist taking over. My role was to give the other consultant room to struggle and the opportunity to learn and grow – even when that included making mistakes. 

The Baptist’s second lesson was having the strength to accept transition. As he carried out his ministry of preaching repentance and baptizing people, he attracted a group of followers. No doubt, his disciples revered him as a role model and teacher. Rather than clinging to them and cultivating a dependence, John helped them transition to becoming followers of Jesus. In one scene, John focused his followers’ attention on Jesus: “Look, here is the lamb of God.” (John 1:36) Andrew and another disciple responded by leaving John and becoming Jesus’ first followers. It was an early step in Jesus attracting his own disciples – including Andrew’s brother, Simon Peter.

Accepting transition – and being open to the conversion that accompanies it – required John to accept that God’s redemptive action was far greater than his own efforts. He clearly understood that discipleship wasn’t about having people follow him. Rather than holding on to his disciples and stunting their growth, he accepted the necessary transition and freed them to follow Jesus.

Recently, a friend described her parental transition now that her two sons are grown and launched. My comment was: “It sounds like they no longer need you to be ‘Mom’ in the same way they used to need you.” She flinched and responded: “I know! I’m trying to adjust, but it’s really hard.” She will always be Mom to her sons, but the way she fulfills that role is undergoing a profound transition. She is struggling to find a new way to be “Mom” for her adult sons.

There is much we can learn from John’s willingness to accept transition – freeing others to fulfill their mission in life. Sometimes, the most important thing we can do is love someone enough to let them go. Doing so requires a special kind of strength, a larger vision of God’s redemptive action, and the humility to accept our own limits. There’s another way to put it: doing so requires self-emptying love.

Perhaps the Baptist’s greatest lesson was knowing when to get out of the way. By doing so, he made room for the one who was coming after him. His quote provides us with a mantra for discerning our own need to get out of the way. “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:29-30) John knew when his role as messenger was over, and he left the mission and ministry to Jesus.

I’ve seen a number of organizational leaders – including myself – struggle to know when it’s time to leave. There is a strong tendency to hang on too long. In doing so, leaders frustrate their successors. Worse, they limit the future effectiveness of their organizations.

Letting go is hard, and few of us are able to do it gracefully. After 35 years as the president of a consulting firm, I found it hard to give up my role. Even though the responsibilities were a burden, the role also provided a professional identity, clarity of purpose, and status both within the organization and beyond it. It was hard to let go of that complex mix of burden and reward. Every letting go is a kind of dying. The current season of life is ending, and “what’s next” is uncertain.

Clinging to a role is ego-centric behavior that can cause us to lose perspective. Knowing when to give up our role – or transition it to someone else – requires seeing the bigger picture. It requires accepting that the mission is bigger than my own efforts to carry it out and trusting that others are capable of pursuing it after I am gone. Being able to let go calls us to surrender – letting go with the grace to empower others.

The Baptist’s lesson provides us with guidance in facing three life challenges: knowing who we are, finding the strength to accept transition, and knowing when to get out of the way. When we confront those challenges, it calls us to pray a version of John’s quote as our mantra: “You, O God, must increase, I must decrease.” It is the self-emptying prayer of parents, teachers, leaders, and all those committed to empowering others. It is the prayer that helps us discern when to get out of the way – leaving room for those who come after us.

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you reflect on the Baptist’s lesson.

  • What is your experience of needing to let go and get out of the way?
  • In what way do you need to embrace the Baptist’s lesson:
    • Understanding what your role is and what its limits are?
    • Accepting the necessary transitions of life?
    • Getting out of the way and leaving room for others?
  • What roles call you to accept the Baptist’s lessons: parent, teacher, coach, leader, and other roles?
  • In what way do you need to embrace John’s mantra as a prayer: God must increase, I must decrease?