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When Leaders Loosen the Reins

How tightly do I hold the reins when I have a vision, a project, or a goal? When should I loosen my grip, take a step back, or reorient? And when should I hunker down and stay focused? This inquiry started two weeks ago, when these lines from George Santayana appeared in my daily reader:

“Nature drives with a loose rein, and vitality of any sort … can blunder through many a predicament in which reason would despair.” – Preface to Realms of Being (1927)

I love how Santayana describes vitality as an antidote to excessively seeking control and always trying to figure everything out. Imagine the experience of riding a horse not as a form of “taming” or “control” but rather as an act of co-creation. I like the image of navigating my life with vitality pointing the way.

I’m not an equestrian expert, but I do know that holding the reins is about communicating with the horse. Like any good communication, it requires listening (sensing the movement of the horse with a gentle hand) as well speaking (providing direction through deliberate, timely tugs). I think it’s also significant that loosening the reins is not the same as letting them go. As leaders, we rarely have the leisure to just drop the reins and surrender to the will of our respective “horses.” Instead, we must find that place between the death-grip of rigid control and a passive deferral to the will of others. The space between is what is known in horse circles as good reining.

With this in mind, I examined my recent daily patterns. I’m busy with networking, client engagements, exercise, friends, and continuous learning. At this very moment, I wouldn’t say I’m holding very tightly to any particular outcome, and yet all my daily activity is motion. It moves me along a trajectory toward a more satisfying life— or at least toward an updated understanding of what satisfaction can be.

I know that there have been times in my life when I have been more structured: holding the reins much more tightly with a focus on controlling things and figuring it all out. At many of those times I forgot to ask if I even wanted to stay on that same frantic track. If I had asked, I might have discovered that the same high level of energy and intensity was no longer required. That discovery would have allowed me to relax into the moment, expending my efforts and energy when they were most needed.

sticky-note-eat-breakfastPerking on this has led me to two examples. One is the story of 3M and the Post-It Note. This incredibly successful product was hardly the result of a strict and purposeful endeavor. 3M employee Spencer Silver’s adhesive was actually a failed attempt at another goal. It sat in the laboratory for four years before anyone remembered it. It was another six years before 3M marketed their sticky (but not too sticky) notes. 3M put it aside but did not throw it away. That patience paid off.

janet-echelman-sculptureThe other is the story of artist Janet Echelman. She was a Fulbright Scholar in India when her paints went missing. She had to radically loosen the reins and let life inform her direction. Her openness to work with new materials sparked an interest in creating very large flexible sculptures that could bring beauty into cities. Once her purpose shifted, Janet persistently searched for technology and supplies that could turn her imagination into reality. Her devotion is now being rewarded with more installations. Reflecting back on that evolution, I see times when she loosened the reins, other times where she used them very deliberately, and maintained a sense of co-creation.

A theme I see in both these examples is right timing. And timing is inconsequential without a strong sense of purpose.

There may not be strict rules on when and how to hold the reins, but examples like these can help point the way. In my personal life, I will deliberately notice how tightly I’m focused on my goals. Whenever possible, I’ll use my vitality and life purpose to discern how to hold the reins. To me, that sounds like a pretty nice way to ride through this world.

Photos by KarenMassier (reins), Iain Farrell (sticky note), and Christopher Michael (sculpture).