You don’t get medals for common sense — but perhaps you should get a pat on the back.
Edwin van Calker, driver on the Dutch four-man bobsled team, told his coach that he would not pilot the bobsled down the icy, treacherous track at Whistler Sliding Centre at the Vancouver Olympic Games. His coach Tom de la Hunty said, “I’ve never seen someone get to a major event and not compete because they’re scared. You keep your inner fears to yourself and do it.”
Not van Calker. He had crashed on the track during the two-man bobsled competition and did not think he could safely pilot the much heavier four-man sled. And he didn’t blame the track, which has seen multiple crashes and the death of a Georgian luger at the start of the Games. “[J]ust my lack of confidence at the moment.”
Perhaps there is a lesson for leaders in van Calker’s admission. The mettle of a leader is tested by adversity; history lauds those leaders who take on the odds and win. But savvy leaders are those who also know when to say no. Unfortunately, we brand folks like that as quitters, when it may be more correct to say they have the guts to know when they’re licked.
So how do you evaluate whether you should take on that challenge, or back down? Here are some thoughts.
Know the odds. Assess what you are up against. You can often quantify a challenge through the metrics you employ to manage your business. Weigh the costs of going forward against the costs of holding back. Try not to undercount the costs on either side. Remember, this type of equation is often used to justify mergers and acquisitions, where two businesses come together to avoid competition that will tear them apart. Yet most mergers end in failure.
Know your team. What are your people capable of achieving? Even the best people have limits. If they like and respect you, they will follow you. But as their leader you need to evaluate what you are asking people to do. Is the risk worth the reward? And if there is no huge risk, is the challenge worth the sacrifice of time and resources? Might you be better off applying that investment in human and financial capital in something more certain?
Know yourself. Do you have what it takes to tackle the new challenge? This is very personal. It can take a keen sense of self — and a certain kind of quiet confidence — to know that what you are facing is beyond your abilities. Self-knowledge includes knowing what you do well and an understanding of what you do less well.
Questions provoked by examining challenges from multiple perspectives will help the leader gain better insight into the situation, as well as the issues he and his team face. Answers aren’t always easy to see, especially since most leaders habitually have an overwhelming desire to do their best to win. Perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds may make for good drama, but it does not always promote what is best for the organization.
Van Calker’s decision to quit meant that the Dutch bobsled team had to forfeit. While his teammates supported his decision, there was disappointment. “This was my last chance to do something special,” said Timothy Beck, a three-time Olympian and member of the bobsled team. “But I don’t have to steer… I don’t have the responsibility.”
Leaders do not rise to positions of authority by quitting, especially when their refusal to face a challenge hurts their teammates. But winning is not the sole aim of leadership. You’re in charge because you know how to get things done the right way. When you realize that a challenge is too great, especially one that is dangerous, backing down demonstrates more valor than foolishly forging ahead.
First posted on HBR.org 2/26/2010