In poker, “knowing when to hold ’em, and knowing when to fold ’em” is an important skill for those who want to win at the game. In fact, the same is true for leaders in many ways. Deciding on a personnel move, a new strategy, a major investment, new markets or products all require good judgment — and good judgment is without a doubt one of the key attributes of effective leaders.
The same can be said for patience. All of us have seen the benefits, and maybe even been the beneficiaries, of patience as practiced by leaders. I am very glad some people early in my career did not give up on me, and later, in the face of some tough business challenges, equally happy that some folks stood with me through some tough times. We think of that kind of patience as virtuous, and indeed it is.
However, patience is not always virtuous. This is so when a patient leader crosses the line from exercising careful discernment to simply delaying the inevitable. When you are facing a very tough decision and the answer is quite clear, albeit unattractive, it is easy in the name of patience to simply be stubborn or in self-denial to delay taking the action that is called for. In such an example, the leader is just being irresponsible.
Patience is not virtuous when you know in your heart what action to take and you are holding off just to feel better or make someone else feel better. Patience is not a virtue when immediate actions such as those in crises are called for. Patience is not virtuous when a leader uses it as a crutch against decisiveness.
To paraphrase the poker adage, knowing when to be patient and when not to is a key skill that differentiates effective leaders from others over the course of a long career when many hundreds of situations will call for understanding the distinction between patience as virtue and patience as inappropriate. The most self-aware and enlightened leaders understand different situations are going to call them to differing levels of response. Knowing that while patience is normally a very virtuous trait, but that it can sometimes be something else, is a mark of experience and wisdom.
Kevin Eichner is president of Ottawa University. He invites your feedback to this column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org