Detachment from an outcome is total acceptance of what is without any desire to have something else, which is a critical concept in true leadership. Detachment is checking one’s ego at the door as one comes into the room. This is, at best, difficult to learn, and I consciously struggled with it for over two decades.
When I was younger, I was deeply upset by the clear-cut logging of the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. I would argue long and loudly about the need to save them and the greed and stupidity of those whose actions would liquidate them. I tried to convince anyone and everyone that the forests needed to be saved. I was so rabid in presenting my point of view as the right one that few people cared to listen, unless they already agreed with me. Consequently, I became frustrated, cynical, and self-righteous, all of which only made matters worse. I became enraged at the “greedy bastards who were clear-cutting my forest,” but I never thought to ask them how they felt about the forests they were liquidating.
One day, as I was giving a passionate speech on the need to “preserve” the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, I suddenly felt the sword taken from my hand and a sense of peace come over me, a sense that was immediately reflected in the audience. Several people came up to me later and said they had never thought about it that way and that what I said made sense. It was then I realized that to speak for the forests or for anything else, I had to change—not the people in the audience, but me! If I wanted people to listen, it was incumbent upon me to change, to say what I had to say in a way that would allow them to hear without destroying their sense of dignity. But how? I didn’t know how.
A few weeks later, I saw the movie Gandhi. Then I read a couple of biographies about Gandhi in which he was often quoted, and through his writings he gave me the answer. I had to detach myself from the outcome, a truly difficult task.
If Gandhi was correct, in detachment lay acceptance of the outcome. Expectation is the attachment, the vested interest in the outcome, because the person with the expectation thinks they possess the means to achieve the right and justifiable result. If, on the other hand, one acts willingly out of duty to a Higher Authority, they can act with detachment, because the Higher Authority is acknowledged as possessing the wisdom to justly govern the outcome. Detachment here does not mean that a person acts without commitment; quite to the contrary, while they are firmly committed to the principle that serves all people in the greatest good, they are detached from an outcome that would serve only the desires of their own ego.
If I am detached, I have no vested interest in the results of a given process as they might affect my personally desired outcome. This means that I can treat all sides, all points of view, and all possible outcomes with equanimity only to the extent that I can set aside my own ego-desires. Equanimity is the kernel of peace in detachment just as surely as anxiety is the kernel of agitation in attachment.
For example, a person who has worked passionately for a cause may suddenly have the insight that passion placed before principle is a house divided against itself that cannot long stand. Because of this new understanding, they now become focused on the principle as a process and become detached from the passion—the desired result. The reaction of their peers most often is: “How can you give up the cause? We’ve believed in it for so long.”
For these people, attachment to the cause has become life itself, their very identity. Therefore, even as they ostensibly fight to “win,” they cannot afford to win because, if they were to actually resolve the issue at the heart of their cause, they would have to find a new ego identity, something most people are loath to do.
If a leader, is truly detached from the outcome, they will find equanimity to be their touchstone. Equanimity, the outworking of detachment, is reflected in the calm, even-tempered, and serene personality of one who is simply open to accepting what is. Such a person can lead without wasting energy through either the need for or the expectation of approval or a predetermined outcome. Such a person acts out of peace.
In turn, the peaceful action allows others to see an alternative way of perceiving something, because no one is trying to convince them of anything. They are given the ideas and the space to consider them. Then, if they so choose, they can change their minds in privacy while retaining their dignity intact.
The leader who is detached from the outcome is part of the principle for which they stand and is therefore part of the resolution or transcendence of the problem. On the other hand, a leader becomes part of the problem when they are attached to defending a position and its necessary outcome. A leader’s detachment and equanimity serve to make followership an exciting prospective because people feel safe in the care of one with equipoise of character.
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Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.