Letting Go of the Bike

Recently, I wrote about a leadership shift – moving from giving others a hand up to your level to supporting the growth of your people much the same as when you teach someone to ride a bike. It’s supportive, encouraging and effective. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve shared this leader shift with many leaders and team members, and I’ve realized that I left out one essential leadership element – at some point you have to let go of the bike.

We often talk about this concept in terms of delegation, but limiting the conversation to delegation sells short the critical role that leaders play in building trust and growing their people. When you’re teaching someone to ride a bike, they never learn to ride the bike unless and until you let go and let them ride. Before you let go, they’re only riding with the benefit of your balance and protection. Even if they’re fully ready to ride on their own, they don’t actually ride until you let go of the bike, and there are so many ways and reasons to keep holding on.

The biggest reason to not let go is fear, but not fear for the person that’s learning to ride (or lead) – it’s your own fear of what might happen if the other person falls or fails. Yes, you are concerned about the impact on the other person (the person learning to ride or lead), but at the core your bigger concerns relate to how their failure (or fall) impacts you. Thus, the question you must ask and answer as a leader is, first, whether you’re willing to let your people fail and, second, whether you’re willing to take the risk of their failure. This is a fundamental leadership question for all of us.

In my coaching work, one of the biggest challenges expressed by existing leadership is this – my future leaders are unwilling or slow to let go of what they’ve done before (and the ways they’ve done things before) in order to let their own people lead, manage and do (and yes, potentially fail). This is a critical decision point in your leadership – the moment you decide whether to continue doing and controlling (which you perceive as safe) OR to instead let go of the bike and let your people ride on their own.

You don’t have to disappear or run away, and you can keep them in your sight or line of sight. You can also be there to support them and to be ready to pick them up when they inevitably fall and fail. And when they do fail, you must certainly be ready with encouragement and questions designed to help them learn for the future. As committed as you may be to helping your people to learn and grow (to teach them to ride the bike), they will only learn and grow when you’re willing to turn that commitment into trusting action by letting go of the bike.

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