Attachment as a Leader: Does what you hold on to serve you or starve you?

As leaders, we wake up each day with certain aspirations, responsibilities, and expectations at the forefront of our attention. Attachment and drive are key factors that tether us to our objectives and motivate us to show up each day to make progress.

However, when taken to far and practiced in the wrong ways, attachment severely limits us as leaders. In my new guidebook, Awake Ethics, I present four primary attachments that leaders have: attachment to our ways of doing things, attachment to results and gratification, attachment to our identity, and attachment to team members. Here I’ll talk a bit more about how understanding your relationship toward each attachment is important in order to lead more ethically and find more clarity day-to-day.

1.Attachment to Our Ways

Seasoned, experienced leaders have tried and true ways of doing things. Once we find a way that works, especially if we design it and implement it ourselves, we’re proud of it. It’s good to have tried and true methods for getting work done and collaborating with your team. However, the obstacle comes in when those ways need to be reevaluated for better, updated ways of working. Industries are always changing and available tools are always emerging. When we get attached to a specific process or tool, we limit our potential as the world evolves and changes. We limit our team’s potential to evolve and progress. Make sure to stay open to change, research new tools and methods, and invite new, fresh ideas from your team members for how the team can best work toward its full potential.

2.Attachment to Results

We must attach to a plan and some form of results in order to work toward a common objective with our team. Achievement gives us internal satisfaction as well as acknowledgement from our leaders, peers, and family. The issue arises here when we attach to results for the achievement and gratification over the process and journey of development, connection, and learning. Again, we are not in total control of each step along the path; however, we can set objectives in order to facilitate a learning experience with our team and for ourselves. Don’t attach to specific results. Set objectives but know that things will change along the way and the challenge is to be prepared to pivot gracefully and frame change as a learning experience for the team.

3.Attachment to Identity

This is a big one. A successful career has so many dimensions. It’s so easy to get blindsided by the labels that come with what constitutes and “successful career” and what constitutes our professional identity. I have been there many times. Titles matter, in that others in our company and industry need to know what we do and where we stand experience-wise. Identity becomes a negative attachment when we identify with a certain organization or a specific title so closely that we believe it is who we are. I go into my story in more detail in Awake Ethics but, in short, I identified so closely with the first organization I worked for that even when it was time to move on and the experience was negatively affecting me both physically and mentally, I couldn’t let go. I feared letting go because I didn’t know who I was – what my identity was comprised of – without the affiliation and title. I didn’t know how I’d spend my time otherwise. I didn’t know what other potential there was for me. I lost myself in the identity of something else that was originally supporting me and helping me transform but was not my identity. Who are you without the title and the organizational affiliation? You are your passions, your skills, your people connections, your values, and so much more. Get clear on these aspects of your and identify with that. Those aspects are eternal and when your focus goes there, they grow and develop to give you confidence and a universal possibility of place and function.

4.Attachment to Team Members

Finally, attachment to team members. As leaders, we rely on our team members to help us achieve our vision and expectations. When we find the perfect team members, it makes our lives easier and we enjoy our day-to-day. Leaders that have experience managing difficult team members especially understand the importance of recruiting the right people. However, just as our true identity is not tied to our title and our organization, team members also change and are not permanent. As leaders, we serve as mentors, so we should hope that our team members evolve, grow, and move on and we are a key part of that. Though the team is here now and we hope they stay to learn and share the benefits with the team’s mission, know they’ll eventually move on. We don’t know when and we don’t know where but they will move on. Moving on is progress. While they are on the team and contributing, support them and acknowledge them – enjoy their presence each day – but also support them in realizing their skills and transforming. If you are leading authentically, they will stay to learn from you and they will move on when the time is right.

Guidance for Healthy, Productive Attachment

I plan. I build. I collaborate. I have goals. But each day I also remind myself that I am as detached as I am devoted to my goals and my plans. Later on in Awake Ethics, I talk about Surrender and how important it is as a leader to balance the need for control with the reality of surrender. We ultimately don’t have control of everything and our plans can fall through at any instant. A team member decides to leave for a different opportunity or family obligation. A key partnership or opportunity falls through due to a natural disaster or change of preference. These phenomena out of our control will happen. This doesn’t mean we must compete detach from any hope of progress or give up on planning. However, zoom out and acknowledge that everyone as humans have these same conditions. We’re all subject to change and we’re all at the ultimate mercy of the universe.

When you find yourself confronted with attachment, one question to ask is: Is this attachment – this striving, this grasping for control, this disappointment, this obsession – a fruitful use of my energy? By attaching to this, what do I hope will come from it? What am I trying to achieve and is it really a priority?

The time you spend on attachment is time you could be spending on something else. Have the wisdom and curiosity to acknowledge the change as destiny and the confidence to know you can rebuild and pivot. It may change a timeline or challenge you to reprioritize and plan but it’s worth it. It’s all part of the journey.

Which of the four leadership attachments do you find yourself confronted with most often?

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If you’d like more reading on attachment, how to manage it, and exercises for working with attachment to fuel your best leadership, check out my new book Awake Ethics. The fourth section of the guidebook is all about Non-Attachment, where I present stories from the field and provide exercises for working through attachment in order to take your leadership practice and team contributions to the next level.

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Thanks for reading!

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