You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em

Dr Ivan Joseph
October 19, 2020
One of my favorite songs is The Gambler from Kenny Rogers. The opening stanza starts with, “You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.” How many of you had to sing that when you read it?

It might seem strange to you that a leader who speaks so often about persistence and grit would have that particular song as their favorite. The very nature of it would seem juxtaposed to everything I stand for. However, just as grit and resilience are important traits for every leader to have, so too is the self-awareness of recognizing when change, progress or success is futile. You will just burn yourself out trying to pursue success. It’s important to know the difference between grit, running away from something and running toward something.


I was recently reading an article from a very successful dean who had taught at many universities and was leaving her position at an American institution. She cited, “It became apparent to me that change and success could not happen where I was, and it was important for my own self-preservation and well-being to move on.”

As leaders, we are conditioned to not give up, to persist, to believe that we can change all things. We are even taught that our inability to persist is a sign of failure or lacking competency. I urge you to reconsider this. My own recent experiences in academia have helped validate this perspective.

Here are the four signs that told me, “It’s time to move on.”
  1. My leadership style changed, and I was becoming toxic. I was not as generous. I was not as collaborative. I was way more irritated with the small things. These are not the signs of a high performing leader.
  2. I couldn’t get the resources or autonomy for the initiatives and changes that I wanted to have happen. There was always a fight and proof of concept that went beyond the simple conversation. It was more often a struggle, and I didn’t feel trust in my ability to lead.
  3. I felt the lack of fun in the work environment. I lingered in the car in the parking lot. I didn’t spend my evenings thinking about work. I got away from work on evenings and weekends every chance I could. Whereas in the past, I focused incessantly on the details of work, and it gave me joy; now, work gave me dread.
  4. I could tell I didn’t have executive sponsorship. The vision that I wanted was not the same vision that the leadership of the institution wanted. They have a right to set that vision. There was no alignment; and, when there’s no alignment, you can’t be miserable. You just have to recognize that the values aren’t aligned, and it’s time to move on. You’ll often hear me say, “You can’t push a rope.”

As a leader, I’ve experienced both sides of this: the need to move people along, as well as, realizing it was time for me to move on.

When I was a head soccer coach, it was always hard for my assistants to hear the news that I wouldn’t be renewing their contract. They’d invested blood, sweat and tears into our program. But after three to four years, there was no more for them to learn from me. By allowing them to stay, I was arresting their development. As hard as it was for them to believe at the time, I was moving them along for their own development, growth and success. It was for their best interests. They always felt spurned, and it always took a lot of personal investment to keep that relationship.

As a Director, I would have to move on emerging leaders who had success and wanted more growth and opportunities like management positions. Sometimes there were none available for them within the organization. By not creating one within the organization, they felt spurned and unappreciated. But in helping them move on, I was again investing in their long-term development.

Don’t run away.
Run toward something.

There’s a piece of me that realizes the act of moving somebody along is the best thing an established leader can do for an emerging leader or for an executive to do for those whose values are not in alignment. Whenever possible, I’ve offered connections, stellar references and opportunities for mentorship or training to prepare them to move forward rather than simply letting them go.

If you have found a change in how you are showing up to work and how you are leading, you have to recognize the possibility that something else has stifled your ability to lead. It’s time for you to take a look at your well-being, your stress, and your mental health.

An old mentor gave me this advice when I found myself in this position. At the time, I was looking to take the first job that was offered to me because I just wanted to ‘get out of Dodge’ and make a change since I was so unhappy. His sound advice was, “Don’t run away, Ivan, from the job you have. Run towards the job you want.” I needed to be mindful that people weren’t pushing me out, and so I needed to choose the job that would help elevate my career and still advance me forward. I needed to begin the process of planning and preparing and getting ready for the right opportunity instead of any opportunity.

If you think it’s time for you, start the process by figuring out where you want to be and what you need to get there–what skills, certificates, endorsements you need to make yourself a viable candidate for the next opportunity. This very action of preparing will make a tough situation that you’re in bearable because you are developing your exit strategy. The positive energy of the learning and growth environment will also improve your overall mood and functioning. Recognize there’s nothing wrong with knowing ‘when to fold ‘em’ or walk away. Don’t burn bridges behind you. Carry yourself with dignity and grace, and still leave the organization better than you found it.

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