Surrendering Gracefully

26 July 2009 Written by 
Published in CEO Think: Blog

Don’t be shy about fighting battles, even when the odds are long. But know how to pick your fights:  there are some cases when you just can’t win. It’s all about getting beyond the problem with the least damage. Here’s my process for upping the win-loss average.

We who lead businesses always must fight battles. We win some, we lose some, and we dodge some. Fighting a losing battle is a common cause of insomnia, but we are guaranteed insomnia when we could have surrendered gracefully and saved all the grief and money of fighting a battle we were destined to lose anyway.

I was sitting the other day with a group of bankers, who were talking about how hard their job can be, given the times, bringing bad news to their clients. It might be that their cost of funds is rising, or that they are headed to the workout group. One of the bankers knew about a CEO that was so angry that his bank wouldn’t advance more funds under an existing line of credit that he sued the bank. Another banker at our table asked if the CEO had read the loan agreement, and the third asked how quickly the judge was expected to issue a summary judgment against the company. This CEO had launched into a battle he couldn’t win. Worse yet, any banker doing reference checks would never work with this CEO or his company. What a mistake!

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not shy about fighting battles, even when the odds are long. But I pick my battles, and I like to win. I push my win-loss average up by surrendering gracefully on sure losses. Here’s my process.

  1. I keep a sharp eye out for battles, so I spot them early on. That includes irritated employees that might fight a dismissal, competitors infringing on my rights, lender or finance issues, disgruntled partners and more.
  2. As soon as I know I have a situation, I quickly and comprehensively analyze it. If it’s a legal risk, this is when I call my lawyer, glad to pay for an hour of time to save dozens of billable hours later. It’s not enough to just understand your opponent’s next move. Take the time to visualize all the actions and reactions as the conflict plays out into the future, until its resolution. There might be several scenarios.  What won’t play into this are my emotions. The fact that I may be pissed, that it’s unfair, that they are evil or have no sense of right and wrong doesn’t matter. That they broke their promises, or are otherwise worthless human beings really doesn’t matter. What matters is keeping my company on target to my key objectives.
  3. I determine the likelihood of winning vs. losing, taking into account the time line and the expense, along with the benefits of winning and the consequences of losing.
  4. I assess the cost of surrendering. That might mean paying a settlement; it might mean having to shop for a new bank sooner, or to stop production. Or it might just make me really mad.

Sometimes surrendering even though you’re RIGHT makes more business sense than losing a long battle. In some cases you just need to buy time—if so, look at your options for stalling. But beware that in most battles, both parties have to agree to the terms of surrender. Surrendering early and gracefully is usually less costly. Sometimes, if you’ve irritated your opponent enough, they may choose to not allow you to surrender on any reasonable terms. This can be troublesome.

In the end, keep your cool, and strategize carefully and comprehensively. It’s almost never about “teaching your opponent a lesson”, or about “giving them a piece of your mind.” It’s about getting beyond the problem with the least damage. Sometimes that means surrendering gracefully, without ever fighting a battle you’re destined to lose.

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Robert Sher

Robert has published extensively on the successful leadership traits of CEOs of mid-market companies. He is a regular columnist on Forbes.com as well as CFO.com, has written a book ("The Feel of the Deal”) and numerous articles for such publications as the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal and the East Bay Business Times. He also publishes his own newsletter, The CEO Insomnia Factor.

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About Robert Sher


Robert Sher

Robert Sher is founding principal of CEO to CEO, a consulting firm of former chief executives that improves the leadership infrastructure of midsized companies seeking to accelerate their performance. He was chief executive of Bentley Publishing Group from 1984 to 2006 and steered the firm to become a leading player in its industry (decorative art publishing).

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