Driving Energy – Release the Past


I’ve enjoyed talking to all sorts of groups about my book Everyday Leadership: Getting Results in Business, Politics and Life.  It’s confirmed for me that there is a certain consistency about leadership principles.  In just the last two weeks I’ve had engaging conversations with a very diverse group of audiences — architects and Rotarians, cyber-educators and energy providers.  Most fun for me, each audience teaches me.  I was surprised at a point the architects amplified last week.  

I talked to them about energy and how to unleash it.  I came to a point I usually touch upon quickly:  Release the past!  I speculated that everyone in that room had someone on their team who had messed up something, and that each one of my listeners was to some degree holding onto that past.  What surprised me was their response when I asked the admittedly leading question: “Don’t you think that when you’re still holding on — disappointed or angry with them — that they will know it – whether you think you’re communicating it or not?”  The overwhelming response was, “of course.”  If I’d had a meter to gauge their level of agreement with the question it would have touched on 85%.  Sometimes I say things that I think I know intuitively.  Sometimes audience response tells me, “You have something there . . . but not much.”  This time, I clearly hit something . . . and then some. 

So let me finish the point, and please comment on this blog about the degree to which I am on to something.  People make (what we think are) mistakes.  When we don’t engage them, or we engage but still feel unresolved, we tend to carry the indictment, frustration, even anger.  And then we communicate it in smirks, avoidances, preferences for other players on the team, sarcasm, or defeatingly low expectations of the offender. 

And the prescription is . . . ?  If there’s something to say, say it.  Get as much resolution as you can, take appropriate action.  AND MOVE ON.  If you hold onto negative feelings and expectations, you will unconsciously and perhaps consciously, create more of the same.  You have to be prepared for and expect their best if you hope to, 

Lead with your best self, 



  • Monday, August 13, 2007
    Mr. Mulhern,

    You have just put into words something that I have been receiving form my leader (I dislike words like boss and superior) for the last two years. Please allow me to elaborate. I have been with this company almost twelve years and my leader has for about seventeen. When I came here he was a Marketing Agent and I a Manufacturing Engineer. We have substantially different personalities and as you may see, differences in how we perform our professions. In past interactions, some times but not always, relations would be strained. The feeling I would get was that he felt I was incompetent or not motivated. Well, almost two years ago we both moved into larger rolls from situations we did not create or foresee. He is now the Plant Manager (deservingly so) and I am the Facilities Supervisor. I don’t believe either of us has released the past as much as we should. When these new rolls had been thrust upon us, I could tell by how he talked to me in meetings compared to my newfound peers that he did not believe in me. This sensation has lessened but is not gone completely. I do not think I have let him or the company down in last turbulent two years. Therefore, I sure wish he would release the past.

    Very Best Regards,
    Ed Bancroft

    • Ed,
      Thanks for sharing so candidly – the words of a REAL everyday leader. Have you considered speaking with him? Is there perhaps a strong HR/org development person in your company who might be an intermediary? Two thoughts: envision and communicate. Envision a very positive relationship of respect, difference, and learning. Include a vision in which your leader gets the very best of all of his people, including you. Then communicate that. Let him know that you would like to speak with him and strengthen your professional relationship. Let him know that you are committed to his success and want to know how to support that. Ask him if there is anything in the way.
      I enjoyed reading Cathy Raines (a mentor of mine) comment below. You might peruse it as well.
      All the best!

  • Daer Dan and others, In some approaches to managing conflict the very first step is to “deal with history.” Especially when the people involved know that the past will be a substantial problem, it can be good to plan to meet to talk only about the past. The meeting might be a short one or it might have to be longer. In some situations it helps to have a separate meeting that’s only about the past. Take a short break, come back another day, somehow put time between the conversation about the past and the one about “so now what?” so that people have the emotional and cognitive time to separate the past from the present and the future.

    I first learned this technique from the people at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. Here’s a link to their website. http://www.emu.edu/ctp/spi.html

    Thanks for a good topic!

  • Another great point…thank you, Dan! The way I have viewed mistakes by staff and co-workers is this: Expect it, then make it a learning experience. Strong leaders anticipate errors will be made occasionally, often by less-experienced staff but sometimes even by a seasoned colleague. If you’re in a leadership position, you have an obligation to be a realist. My advice? First convey to the staffer that nobody’s perfect; even great employees make mistakes. Have some compassion. You’ll probably be amazed how eager your employee is to correct the error. If being compassionate is difficult…maybe it was a whopper of a mistake…take a moment and reflect upon the worst mistake you ever made in your career. How did the leader you worked for handle it? How would you have wished they’d handled it? It is your role…and responsibility…as a leader is to work with the staffer to both identify the problem and the solution. The cooler you keep your head, the more grateful they will be. First and foremost, it’s the right way to treat people. Secondly, you will quickly earn the loyalty of your staff, and you’ll find that they will work harder for you and enjoy it more.

  • Dan, your thoughts on letting go of the past bring to mind an essay someone gave me a few years ago on the topic of forgiveness. The essay’s main point: forgiveness is more for the forgiver than for the forgiven. In other words, you are only hurting yourself by holding onto old grudges, bad feelings, etc. I believe this to be true, and I think it only adds to the case you are making in this week’s letter.

  • I see this happen in nonprofit work; typically with relationships between and ED and the Board of Directors. A Board member can be labled “difficult” and the Board member can label the ED incompetent. More often than not the tension is created by a miscommunication or misunderstanding about work tasks etc. It is so very interesting as we sit down and talk through the tension the simple solutions that come forward. Most of the time a simple explanation wipes away months or years of entrenched stress between the two. The sad part is many times these tensions have created a great deal of inefficiency within the organization and not only do two individuals suffer but the mission of the organizations suffers as well. Letting go of the past can really be as simple as a conversation over a nice hot cup of coffee…sometimes. It is so wonderful to have read this article this morning and have these ideas discussed. The comments this morning are wonderful and so helpful to expand thinking.

  • Yes, Dan! We can be judgmental about another person’s performance.

    –Is it because we have some key information that they didn’t have because we didn’t share it and they didn’t know to ask for it? Is it because we asked them to do something that they are ill-equipped, by training and experience, to do? Whose bares most of the responsibility if that’s the case?

    –Is it because they had the courage to take a risk when no one else would, a risk that could have paid off big, but this time it didn’t because of unpredictable vagaries in the marketplace? The fastest-growing Fortune 500 companies, according to Peter Druecker, I think, actually encourage staff to take risks because with things moving so fast out in the newly-flat world, companies do better to follow their gut, risk mistakes, even costly ones, and learn from them, than doing a costly feasibility study that’s out of date and obsolete before it hits print!

    –Is it because we see ourselves as having higher standards than everyone else, and think that others will see us as competent when we become critical and judgmental? And when did being critical and judgmental ever lead to positive working relationships?

    It’s easy to fix blame on one person when something goes wrong. It’s harder to take responsibility. The most productive thing is to focus on fixing the problem. That takes, as someone else has pointed out, a crucial conversation where those involved analyze what happened, what went wrong, what went right, and perhaps most importantly what, if anything, can be done in the future to avoid this kind of error.

    A lot has been written about forgiveness but there’s a reconciliation process that needs to occur, too. Have a crucial conversation to really resolve all those negative feelings, not just stuff them! (And if you don’t know what a crucial conversation is, read the book with that title.)

  • Mistakes are part of the human condition in every walk of life. Sometimes we all need to remember that people are not perfect. It can be so frustrating when human error causees problems and the additonal stress results in an increase in the work load followed by a loss of productivity. Then for the cherry on top – a dip in morale.

    Even worse, it seems we hear more and more about leaders, who we know should be accountable and held to a higher standard, failing to see and address the most glaringly obvious errors in judgement! If the daily news is any indication, this appears to happen in a wide variety of professions on a fairly regular basis.

    I have also noticed that sometimes… we learn more about the true qualities of a leader by the way mistakes and failures are handled. It also helps when truth, sincerity, forgiveness and reconciliation is an integral part of the company mission.

  • I have recently had the fortunate opportunity to work for someone who practices the principle of “letting go” (of mistakes). He created one of the best work teams I have seen with a few simple principles: Hire people with the needed expertise; train them in the job specifics; give them much positive, specific feedback; when they make a mistake ask what they can do to fix it, then prevent it, then move on.
    We changed the culture from one of blaming to one of problem solving, and most importantly from one of conservative — avoid mistakes at all costs to one of innovation. Work teams that dwell on mistakes simply discourage improvement. Well intentioned and informed risk takers will make a few more mistakes but will have lots of successes and their workplaces will reap the benefit of continuous improvement.

  • I’d toss a single word into this great exchange: RESPECT. It means, literally, LOOK AGAIN. Do I know someone? No, only their history, only their history with me, as I remember it through my filters of defense and aspiration. To the extent that I respect them, I will look AGAIN, and again and again, each time, open to who they ARE, changing just as I change.

    Dan’s diaper-changing story at the beginning of EVERYDAY LEADERSHIP reminds me of a similar family lesson. When my kids were teenagers, I was a 10-minute walk from my work at UDM. But I walked slowly, preparing myself for their ever-changing personalities. I’d tell myself not to be fooled by a familiar face, but to be attentive to who they were TONIGHT.

    But I plead guilty. It’s difficult to let go of the past, and have our whole selves open to the future, in relationship.



  • Yes! You have hit on something BIG! Anger, resentment, bitterness, etc. zaps our ENERGY. It robs our time and our thought processes. I am guilty of even dwelling in problems that have already been resolved because I don’t FORGET them. When God forgives us it is so complete that He never holds it against us again. In essence it is like it never happened.

    How powerful it would be in our relationships with people if we never remembered or held against them any mistake or issue? Everyone would get a perfectly “clean slate” with us when they needed it.

    Being an elementary educator, I have long known the power of the “clean slate” with students. They get one each year when they go to a new grade and have new teachers and new kids in their class. They feel empowered. “This year is going to be different! I can do better this year. Last year is over.”
    Those are the things they say to me.

    The energy flows both ways, for the forgiver and the forgiven.

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