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Leadership challenge: Learning to let go

By: Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, and Tanya M. Cohn, PhD, MEd, RN

Holding on to the past can sabotage your future.


  • Learning to let go of our expectations and the demands we place on ourselves can be challenging, but it’s frequently essential to moving forward.
  • Letting go is a process of accepting change as a positive next step in life that will lead to professional maturity.
  • Strategies for letting go include expressing gratitude, staying in the present, admitting we need help, and changing our vantage point.

Kelsey worked for years as director of professional practice in her organization. The hospital achieved Magnet® designation twice during her tenure. A recent merger with a bigger health system eliminated her position when the functions of the professional practice department merged with that of the larger health system. Kelsey was offered no other role and left the organization. Kelsey is still stunned by this turn of events, and she’s having trouble letting go of what happened and making plans for the future.

Kelsey’s reaction to her job loss is understandable. Losing a role that you’ve held for years can shake your confidence. Job loss can lead to grief associated with a sudden loss of role identity, professional colleagues, and work routine. Few leaders don’t at some point experience a crisis in their job, health, or family. Learning to let go of our expectations and the demands that we place on ourselves can be challenging.

Clinical psychologist Henry Cloud, PhD, has noted that life is a delicate balance of holding on and letting go. Learning to let go is difficult but frequently essential. Continuing to ruminate about what’s happened doesn’t fix anything, nor does wishing that things were different. What Kelsey may not realize is that holding on to the past will wreak havoc in her life. If she lets go, she can free herself from the sources of pain and suffering that are holding her back. But letting go isn’t easy.

Why letting go is so hard

Our desire to work hard and challenge ourselves can make letting go difficult. And we may have a compelling inner voice that tells us not to be a quitter. However, letting go and quitting aren’t the same. Letting go is a process of accepting change as a positive next step in life that will result in professional maturity.

Many of us fear starting something new. A new job creates anxiety that subsides as we become more familiar and comfortable with the organization and our new colleagues. We develop new personal and professional networks, and we grow professionally through projects and promotions. These roots are important because they establish our mutual commitment, but they also make it hard to let go. We have to remind ourselves that starting something new may be stressful, but the rewards of professional growth will outweigh that.

Letting go also requires us to forgive. When an abrupt change, such as Kelsey’s, occurs, we can get so absorbed in being upset that a path to forgiveness seems impossible. We would rather believe that things shouldn’t be this way or that those making the decision don’t understand our value to the organization. However, we can’t truly let go and move on unless we can forgive and create a sense of acceptance, release, and peace that allows us to move forward with a positive outlook.

For Kelsey, the process of letting go is further compounded by the fact that her position was eliminated. This can create a feeling of devaluation, which is entirely understandable; however, Kelsey must maintain her dignity and not sabotage her career by speaking negatively about the organization. She must remember that a department merger isn’t a personal attack on her or a negative reflection on all the hard work she devoted to the organization. If Kelsey can do that, she can transition to a new organization and position more positively than she is currently. Part of transition is accepting what we can control and what we can’t.

The illusion of control

We frequently believe we have control over all things that happen in a situation when, in fact, we don’t, which leaves us feeling frustrated or angry. Even worse, we might blame ourselves. What we’re feeling is a sense of powerlessness, which may lead us to think that if only we could go back in time we could do or say something to change the outcome. But we must remember that we can’t control others’ decisions or actions. We can control only our actions and reactions. We must stay present and manage our emotions.

For Kelsey, this means identifying where the illusion of control is interfering in her situation. She might believe that her position and leadership success warrant her control over the organization’s direction. Or she might blame herself for her position’s elimination. Neither is correct. The decision to merge departments and eliminate Kelsey’s position is the direct result of the organization’s strategic change. In the end, Kelsey must accept that she didn’t have control over the changes, but she does have control over her actions and reactions. If she lets go of her previous position and the events that surrounded the change, Kelsey can embrace creating a positive professional outlook for a new position and organization, allowing her to make plans for the future.

Strategies for letting go

As Kelsey has learned, losing a job is hard. It impacts our self-esteem and self-confidence. Moving on professionally means letting go of what happened. Failing to do so can lead to future career derailment. Kelsey can use these five strategies to help her let go.

1. Express gratitude.

When confronted with a crisis, think about what’s good in your life to help you stay calm and centered. Reflect on things you’re grateful for and thank those who support you. Expressing gratitude reminds you that you need to let go of only a part of your life.

2.Stay in the present.

When facing uncertainty, you easily can become anxious about the future. You might look for reassurance that your life will get back on track quickly, but you can’t live in the future today. This is a lesson that people with alcohol misuse who go through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program quickly learn—take one day at a time.

3. Admit you need help.

Kelsey’s career success means she probably was a go-to person for others who were having problems. She may find admitting that she needs help challenging; ultimately, though, she may find it liberating. Relying on trusted friends and family is essential now. They will remind her what a great person she is. As nurses and leaders, we frequently believe we should be able to solve our own problems and don’t ask for help. A trusted circle can provide sound advice on the next steps in a job search and hold you accountable if you demonstrate anger and resentment.

4. Change your vantage point.

When you’re in the midst of a struggle, seeing the bigger picture can be difficult. Getting some distance from your crises and changing your perspective can help you emerge wiser and more thoughtful. Usually, when you let go of one thing, other doors open that you might not consider walking through if you stay in your comfort zone.

5. Decide to let it go.

Things don’t disappear on their own; you have to commit to letting them go. If you don’t make this conscious choice up front, you might sabotage any effort to move on from this hurt. Making the conscious decision to let it go also means accepting you have a choice to let it go. Kelsey can stop reliving the past pain and ruminating about the organizational decision to eliminate her position. Realizing this can be empowering. The choice is yours: Hold on to the pain or live a future without it.

Wise advice

As we gain more life experience, we continue to learn that things don’t always go as planned. The psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” This is wise advice for all of us, even when the rejection feels very personal. Letting go is ultimately a decision to take control of the rest of your life.  AN

Rose O. Sherman is adjunct professor at the Marian K. Shaughnessy Nurse Leadership Academy, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of the book The Nurse Leader Coach: Become the Boss No One Wants to Leave. You can read her blog at emergingrnleader.com. Tanya M. Cohn is an associate professor of practice and consulting nurse scientist at Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts.


Cloud H. Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward. New York: Harper-Business; 2010.

Cushatt M. Undone: A Story of Making Peace with an Unexpected Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press; 2015.

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