The Forgotten Secret of Good Leaders

           Jedediah Smith paused on top of a ridge and looked out at the terrain in front of him with his spyglass.  All he saw were rugged mountains and snow.  There was no sign of a pass or way to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

His group was near starvation and exhaustion.  In the last six days, they had eaten one beaver and one colt.  Jedediah desperately wanted to cross the mountains and believed that was the quickest way to get back the summer’s rendezvous of all the trappers and mountain men in the Rocky Mountain area.  That was also the chance to get with his business partners, sell their furs and buy new supplies. 

The question before him, and him alone as the leader of the group, was whether or not to press on and hope to find a way through or turn back.  Turning back meant facing Indian tribes that had become increasingly hostile.  It also meant giving up on a way to get across the mountains to the rendezvous.  Did he forge ahead?  Or, did he turn back?

In his journal, Jedediah later wrote that he “learned one thing which I did not know before – that I must sometime be turned back.”  Jedediah was a determined explorer, but realized that pushing forward would not ultimately accomplish what he hoped and would likely mean his destruction as well as all of those for whom he was responsible.  The group retraced their steps and set up camp at a lower elevation.  Later, Jedediah did make it to the rendezvous with two others, nearly dying on the way.  The rest of the party stayed behind until Jedediah rejoined them in September of that year, five months later.

It is easy for an organization or an individual leader to become so focused on one goal or strives for a certain outcome that they ignore changing circumstances.  That could mean ignoring the threat of a new competitor or changes in the market.  It could mean continuing a policy or process in the work place that doesn’t work as intended and affects morale or actually damages productivity. 

As Kenny Rogers once crooned, a gambler has to know when to fold’em and when to hold’em.  A good leader needs to know when to change course, even if that means abandoning expectations, ideas, hopes or even a practice that was successful in the past, but no longer will be. 

The best leaders know when to push forward and, what's more, when to give up on an idea and change course.  Most leaders do not like to give up and may not want to admit that they are on the wrong course.  Determination, perseverance and follow through are more often the skills or qualities that create a good leader.  However, there has to be room for that judgment call, to say this isn’t working anymore or is the wrong path and it is time to re-evaluate and change direction.

Unfortunately, there is not one simple formula to tell a leader when to throw in the towel or to persevere.  The overall secret is the ability to inject sound judgment and not to be blinded by what you want to see.  To do this, you need to take a step back and take an objective look at whether the course of action will accomplish the expected goal.  Then you have to be willing to cut your losses and move on.  This is a challenge in and of itself.  There is already an investment behind your actions, money spent, time spent or other commitments.  In the case of Jedediah, he had traveled a long time heading north from California looking for a way across the mountains.  The last several days had been spent on the verge of starvation traveling deeper into the mountains.  When he changed course, that effort was essentially lost and they set up camp back down the trail.  Nevertheless, he realized that continuing to push on out of stubbornness or determination would likely lose much more - all of their lives.

Telling the difference between determination and thickheaded stubbornness can be tricky.  To help evaluate and re-evaluate your own motives, use the following questions as a guide.

1.       Are goals being met or is the current course moving you closer to them?

2.     Are you seeing what you want to see or are you seeing reality?  Be careful not to delude yourself.

3.     What do your instincts tell you?  Instincts are often built on years of experience tied into judgment and can help guide your actions.

4.     Are you willing to cut your losses and change direction?  Just like in the song about gamblers, it is sometimes necessary to fold on a poor hand to win the game in the long run.

If you follow these basic steps, you may discover the forgotten secret of success that is sometimes needed by truly successful leaders.  Especially those that succeed in difficult times and challenges.


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  1. Hi Eric,

    This is amazing thought, I was actually doing the same in my venture but did not know if I was on the right track. YES! Taking a step back helps in getting back with fresh energy in different venture.

    Hats off!
    Sunil Yadav

  2. Eric,

    I like the article and thought of it in context of not only as a small business owner, but a local elected official. Seems one might think she has an answer or solution, yet as others weigh in, or a cost benefit analysis is used, one might deviate from a prior position and incorporate steps that assures viability of the
    entity. As a leader, I am charged with responding to the majority of the constituents needs, and therefore, have to by virtue of the position I hold, evaluate things not so much on my personal goals, but take that step back and re-evaluate.

    Thanks again for the post.

  3. Great feedback and glad the post hit the mark.

    The concept of business karate is geared to organizations of all types and sizes. However, I hadn't really thought about leadership or risk management from a political angle before, except for some poor examples (sorry). Certainly, the principles are the same whether you are leading a business unit in a Fortune 500 company, a school, church or leading your community.