Saturday, June 14, 2008

Know When to Fold 'Em

During a Q&A session following a speech I gave to the Orange County Leadership Academy, someone asked a question to which I am sure we can all relate:

"Colonel, what do I do if my boss won't take my suggestions? I hear what you are saying about taking risks and pursuing big ideas, but what are my options if my supervisor doesn't agree? What can I do?"

Here are a few thoughts...and something I have been thinking about a lot recently. I know that, unless you are the President of the United States, you answer to someone and you, like me, are under an authority that makes decisions that you have to follow. So what do we do when our supervisors don't go along with our recommendations, won't adopt our proposals, or will not take the course of action that we know with every fiber of our being is the right one? What do we do if we have articulated the strengths of our preferred alternative, argued passionately about its merits, and done everything we could to outline the best way to go, only to be overruled?

Sing it with me and Kenny Rogers..."You got to know when to fold 'em...."

When I got this question, it hit me square between the eyes as I have been wrestling with this same predicament. That's right, I don't always agree with my supervisors. I put my blood and sweat into certain decisions that are not ultimately approved. I disagree with mandates from my headquarters. Hey...I'm a Soldier.

But what do we do when we don't like the boss' decision? Soldier on!

This is a scenario that leaders at all levels encounter regularly, especially those who are passionate about what they do and push for what they believe is right. Eventually, we must all reconcile with the fact that the boss is the boss -- and we are not. Fight the good fight, make the best case you can, then salute and move out!

Now...I'm not suggesting we should role over on every decision. I'm not making the case for "Yes-Men!" On the contrary, I'm all for a good battle. But the time for fighting, for passionate debate, for non-concurrence is before the boss decides -- not after. We have to do our best to identify and mitigate risks and to identify the strengths of the best alternative and the weaknesses of the others as part of the decision making process -- not after the decision is made. Once the boss has decided, we cannot undercut his authority. No whining, no whispering, no working in private to scuttle. That's disloyal and insubordinate and will lead to organizational ruin.

I'm not talking about immoral or illegal decisions. Of course, those should be called out at any time for what they are. But if they are not this sort of ethical breach but rather a professional difference, the boss wins. The Ace beats the King. And we've got to know when to fold 'em.

Finally, I believe that if we don't like the boss' decision, we have only two choices:

1. Suck it up and be a good Soldier. Keep your personal thoughts to yourself and be a champion for the decision. Sleep well knowing you did all you could to make your case. File away the lesson for when you are the Ace. or

2. Vote with your feet...and leave. Go someplace where your ideas are welcome or where you can hold all the cards.

To do something different, to be somewhere in the middle and undercut our leaders, is a disservice to the boss, to the organization we serve, and to our own authority. You see...we should expect no less from our own team.

Play all your cards before the boss makes her play. Be aggressive, argue with passionate professionalism. But when the decision is made, put down your cards and pick up the case for the new decision. Embrace and market it as if it were your own (the ultimate test of a true professional).

This is hard to hear sometimes. But when I answered the question, I knew I was reminding myself of this key leadership lesson. Know when to fold 'em, friends. That's Leader Business!


James T. Parsons said...


I also think a corollary to this principle is "pick your battles wisely!" I found your post very helpful since often I am quicker to put "blue face on" and go to war than to be a good a soldier as I can. But it also struck me that often fighting hard for a different decision must be measured with the guage of discretion. If you always fight every decision, the boss will quickly learn to disregard the input - even if some of it might be good. If, however, we try to measure the best and most important times to fight for a different decision, we are more likely to impact it.

A friend of mine had this situation come up - from a committee member who keeps fighting every decision my friend makes. The reality is that his decisions take into account a lot of complex balance of competing issue. Rather than asking the rationale for his decision, my friend's committee keeps challenging everything - grinding the progress to a stand-still. I talked with him that the offending person probably would be wiser to "pick his battles" and not fight everything.

I agree with you - if it seems that too many decisions are problematic, it may be you have to look for a new job. However, I think it is also worth noting that "always being right" may not be the best way to develop a team. Teams require good teamwork - and we can also watch when it is our egos that are speaking rather than our best judgment.

Hope you are well and thanks for consistently great posts!

Dan McCarthy said...

Tom –
Good advice and analogy. I’ve always subscribed to the leadership principle that it’s a leader’s responsibility to speak up and challenge ideas as a part of a leadership team, including their own managers. But once the decision is made, that leader needs to publicly support that decision like it’s their own and do everything they can do implement it successfully.

And btw – I’ve gotten that same question a lot myself. Sometimes the reason suggestions aren’t taken by bosses is that they’re just bad ideas – we’re often too quick to assume it’s a close-minded boss.

Nina Simosko said...

Excellent entry! It reminds me of a couple of pieces that I wrote on a similar topic. One, entitled "Democratic Dictatorship" [] and the other called "Conceding to Win" []. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of this dynamic.

Tom Magness said...

Thanks Dan. You are right and this issue is one I know we all struggle with. We get so close to issues that we don't know when to let go. But there definitely comes a time when continuing to hold onto things that are contrary to the bosses intent run the risk of being disloyal and undermining his or her authority.

Great point about "bad ideas!" They sure never seem that way when we come up with them, do they? TM

Tom Magness said...


I enjoyed both posts. And I see we have the same taste in favorite country songs. Learning "when to fold 'em" is definitely the sign of a maturing leader. And being "the decider" is what leadership is all about. Awesome!