Embracing empowerment and relinquishing control

At Courageous Leaders Live 2024 leaders discuss the importance of time, feedback and making space for others

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


Being a leader means having to accept that you might not always be in control. Striking a balance between steering things forward and letting go, and empowering others, isn’t easy to navigate.

At Courageous Leaders Live 2024, Nicola Kemp, Editorial Director at Creativebrief, sat down with Nishma Patel Robb, President of WACL, Sophie Trinder, Head of Brand Strategy UK at X, and Karl Marsden, Former CEO Contagious, to discuss getting comfortable with relinquishing control.

Learning to let go

As Head of Brand Strategy UK at X, Sophie Trinder shared that when Twitter was taken over, she faced a paradox trying to support her team through turbulence while she was also heavily pregnant. “I had to let go and have a moment of self-care,” says Trinder.

“You don’t have to bring your whole self to work if you really don’t want to. There might be bits you want to keep back,” says Trinder. Keeping those private times to collapse on the sofa and talk about her day with family allowed her to keep a sense of control when things were unpredictable.

You don’t have to bring your whole self to work if you really don’t want to.

Sophie Trinder, Head of Brand Strategy UK at X

When external factors are impacting the day-to-day, “trusting yourself is the hardest thing,” says Nishma Patel Robb, President of WACL. She suggests “looking for evidence” in times when listening to your gut has worked.

“Trust yourself. Be sure that your values are true, valid and positive,” adds Karl Marsden, Former CEO of Contagious. He shares that working from your own constructive values means you can trust yourself even in difficult decisions. He also points to the importance of trusting your team and listening to the people around you. “You’re not there to know everything and get everything right,” he adds.

Making space to make decisions

Time is our most precious resource and yet too much of it is misspent, as evidenced by the increase in time spent in virtual meetings. “Prioritise, do more prep, make time to create time,” says Marsden, pointing to the fact that the more that time is misused, the harder it is to gain back control.

You spend your career trying to get in the meeting and then trying to get out of it.

Nishma Patel Robb, President of WACL

"A bad meeting has a lasting impact and wastes time spent dwelling", adds Trinder. She shared that she urges her own team to give themselves the time back, and have autonomy over their own time to leave meetings that don’t serve them. “If the meeting isn't necessary or helpful, don’t do that meeting,” she says.

“There’s so much ego attached to thinking ‘why am I not in that meeting?’. You spend your career trying to get in the meeting and then trying to get out of it,” adds Robb. She urged the audience to remove ego, rethink how they approach time and not spend it performatively.

Empowering others

So often leaders want to be in control of everything. Empowering teams means leaving egos at the door and sometimes taking on a new role. “You spend years developing skills and expertise to then not do it. Leadership is hard. It’s hard to let go and take on more of a mentorship role,” says Robb. She urges leaders to find joy and excitement in helping others hone their skills.

Relinquishing control to others is scary and things might not always go well, but allowing people space to fail and grow is part of the learning process.

“Part of the empowerment journey is expecting people to fail and being there,” says Marsden. Even high performers face challenges. “Don’t berate people for failing, pick them back up and approach coaching with kindness,” he adds, stressing that success isn’t a straight line.

This sentiment was echoed by Robb, who encourages her team to ask what happened and how they recovered when things went wrong. It is ok to get things wrong, ok to be disappointed and to take learnings from failure.

Feedback is an important tool for helping people learn and build skills, yet so often it is done in a way that can be damaging. “People see through the shit sandwich,” says Trinder. “Be human, be honest about your weaknesses as well.” She says that sharing more positives than negatives ensures that people don’t dwell on the bad, and approaches feedback as a skill that can help build people up consistently over time. “Remember to listen as well as speak when giving feedback,” she adds.

Robb shares that feedback can also work better given peer-to-peer, rather than only by senior people. Encouraging teams to discuss and share opinions with each other helps them to learn the craft of giving feedback, and prepares them for leadership.

Controlling the controllables

The ongoing turbulent socioeconomic backdrop means there’s lots that isn't in our control. Yet Marsden reminds leaders that “we are only in control of how we react”. He therefore urges leaders to spend time building internal cultures that are robust to challenges and united in a way of thinking.

In a tough environment, “courageous leadership means leaning into the feeling and looking further ahead to legacy”, says Robb. “Be clear on the vision to help people stay centred,” she says. When looking back on periods of uncertainty, she stresses that she would want her team to not remember the problems but instead how they felt. “Consider what's worth battling for and bring people in,” she adds.

Looking to what you can control but driving people forward based on consistent values, no matter the challenges, is the only way leaders can both let go and feel empowered.