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Knowing When to Hold and When to Fold  

In life, as in poker, the importance of recognizing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em cannot be underestimated. And in business, such decisions may be the most critical ones an executive can make. The future of the organization may hang in the balance.

Your company might have spent weeks, months or even years carefully planning the implementation of a particular strategy, but the situation for which it had been designed now appears to have changed. Were these current conditions anticipated? Is this the wrong time to implement the plan, or should we go ahead anyway, hoping for the best?

Should all that preparation, which has been fine-tuned in countless meetings and has survived a difficult approval process, be delayed, changed or even scrapped entirely? And what executive among us is willing to make the decision to abort it, knowing that his or her professional future is at stake?

The ability—and more important, the will—to make tough decisions separates exceptional leaders from those who are only average. As long as everything is going smoothly and there are no bumps or surprises, many managers may appear to be performing well, but all are not capable of responding properly to unexpected, difficult or unfamiliar obstacles.

In uncertain times like these, the best leaders may not resemble those who have been idolized by management gurus or presented in training films. During World War II, for example, U.S. General George S. Patton, a controversial figure, turned out to be one of our best military leaders, and Winston Churchill, who had been written off as a washed-up politician, became the right person to lead the United Kingdom as prime minister. Both of these men were willing to adjust their plans when conditions changed, despite ill-advised advice to the contrary. 

Human resources personnel take note: Companies should not base hiring decisions on how comfortably a person might fit into the prevailing corporate culture. Some remarkable individuals may be missed by doing so. New employees do not have to think or look like everyone else to become successful leaders, but some who are different may need your help in navigating the demoralizing and dumbing-down effects of corporate politics.

We need more leaders who have the guts to make difficult decisions after listening to and weighing the conflicting advice of those around them, and who are flexible and courageous enough to adjust those plans when circumstances change. They must also be capable of securing the cooperation of others, inspiring them to execute a revised plan without hesitation under often-difficult conditions.

Running a business during these unusual and confusing times requires leaders who can rise to the occasion. Management rigidity is poison to the lifeblood of a successful company. As Reid Hoffman in his new book “Masters of Scale” points out, “You have to be willing to throw out—or at least challenge—what you originally believed to be true.”

What may have seemed like a good idea a few years ago may not be a viable option at the present time, but truly exceptional leaders will know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.  

Jack Goodhue, management coach, can be reached at

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