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Buddhists and psychologists alike tell us that non-attachment to outcomes is the key to success. There is tremendous value in thinking this way – and it’s a key component of my executive coaching work on speaking truth and building your internal power. Non-attachment from the culture around you is critical to establishing your InPower – your personal power base (first becoming aware of the distinction between “you” and “culture” and then learning to use and change the culture intentionally.)

BUT, being a human being fundamentally works against this principle. Why? Because humans are wired to care.

Attachment Is The Key to Success

Think about it. We work hard to achieve great things and support our families because we care and love. Love (in its broadest form) is one of the greatest powers we humans call upon. Families, religion and popular culture are all built around it. We can’t deeply love what we’re detached from – can we?

Attachment bonds between a parent and a child are a critical component of that child’s success in life and in becoming a functioning human being. In many ways, our entire childhood is defined by the effort to attach, first to our environment, then to our family, then our friends and finally our world. We can’t become functional human beings if we’re unattached – can we?

Attachment Is an Important Component of Leadership

How can a leader help their organization or group accomplish great things if they don’t care about the results? The answer is that they can’t. They have to care. They have to attach some aspect of their own success to the outcome or they won’t have the passion, energy and stick-to-itness necessary to see it through to the end. They won’t have what it takes to change the world.

And yes, we know that the best leaders all fail. They all mess up and come back stronger, smarter, more determined and wiser. So are good leaders masochists? I hope not. What allows a good leader to care so much, drive so hard, fail so spectacularly and come back so passionately and wisely and fail and succeed again and again? Great leaders can’t achieve spectacular success through non-attachment to outcomes – can they?

Attachment Isn’t the Issue – It’s Freedom

After wrestling with this concept for literally decades (since studying Buddhism as a young mother very attached to my children and stumbling through startup after startup after startup…), I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re missing the point. Attachment/NonAttachment is a limiting dichotomy that no longer serves this discussion. Great leaders and great human beings do attach to many things, but we do so as much as possible out of conscious choice. We recognize our power to choose to attach to the effort and the outcome, to commit ourselves to it’s success but to also choose to define our personal success separately from the outcome.

It’s the difference between choosing to derive a chunk of your self-worth from the car you drive (attachment) to choosing your car as a vehicle to get you from place to place (temporary attachment to serve a goal). Both owners will be bummed if a car thief steals their wheels, but the second person is much less vulnerable to letting the car thief steal their power.

In the case of leaders, they attach themselves to organizations, jobs and causes and then detach when the game is over – regardless of the result – because then they can have a greater impact somewhere else. They attach their primary definition of success to themselves – over the course of their lives – not any particular job, project or event. They attach to accomplishing their intentions, not needing to be right or execute a plan that’s outlived its usefulness, simply because they “said they would”.

I realize that this implies a tremendous level of personal discipline and self-mastery, but I also know it’s attainable, desirable, possible and a key aspect of leadership success.

Success is Messy

So here’s the thing. Being attached takes energy and involves a certain amount of effort/discomfort/pain to attach and reattach. It feels most of the time like “ups and downs” and yet we strive for total inner balance and peace, never ruffled.

Maybe that’s possible, especially if you have a handy mountaintop nearby, but I’m not sure it’s desirable. Attachment, passion and commitment are where so much joy, love and making-a-difference comes from, let’s not idealize it’s absence. Instead, let’s accept that true power and success come from the ability to attach and yet remain free of the thing we’re attached to, detach when it’s “time” and serves all parties even if part of us isn’t ready to, and especially accept a little bit of messiness and inefficiency in exchange for progress and meaningful change.

I know this is a bit esoteric, but this has really been brewing in me for a long time as I wrestled with these concepts. If you’ve read this far, thanks for listening. And by the way, for those interested in this topic, check out the COMMITMENT VS. ATTACHMENT PRIME by Chris McGoff. He says this extremely well. (Watch the video.)


Props to Terry Sexton on one of my posts last week for flipping over this brain cell. We were discussing the relative importance of a leader’s need to apply “healthy skepticism” to their business – not to fall into paranoia, but not to fall into the swoon of success either. Here’s what Terry said that spurred my thinking about the proper level of “attachment” to the business a good leader should have.

I agree that leader’s should not be paranoid. Healthy scepticism, yes maybe. However, their relationship to success and failure should be one of non attachment so that both of these can be used equally as data. This will inform them about themselves, the effectiveness of their strategy and their organization.

Cultivating this non attachment to both failure and success is a difficult task and a life’s work. I,m still working at it.

Kudo’s to Terry for admitting that cultivating freedom is damn hard. I’m right there with you, buddy.

What’s your biggest messy success? Do you strive for non attachment? Do you struggle with attachment? What lessons have you learned?

This post originally appeared on the Reclaiming Leadership blog. Check out my new self-service women’s leadership coaching website: InPowerCoaching.com.

Dana Theus