18 Feb 2021 10:20 IST

When it’s right to walk away

The strength in one’s legs to make that walk will come from the conviction in the heart.

In his book “Screw It, Let’s Do It,” Richard Branson writes about the final episode of his hit TV show, The Rebel Billionaire. He tells of the twist he offered the competition winner, Shawn Nelson. Shawn had won a million dollars and it was his for the taking. But Branson offered him a coin toss. If he won the toss, he would get an even bigger mystery prize. If he lost, he would get nothing. Shawn paced as he grappled with the difficult dilemma.






He finally decided he’d walk away from the coin toss challenge and stay with the million-dollar prize. Richard told him he’d chosen wisely. That going for the coin toss would not have been cool or entrepreneurial or gutsy — it would have been plain stupid, because it was a gamble. Shawn ended up getting both the million dollars and the mystery prize which was to be President of Virgin for three months — a learning experience worth more than an MBA at Harvard. This is a decision that will keep coming up in a leader’s life. When does she walk away? When should she junk all the rah-rah about persisting and the try-try-try again mantra and decide that walking away is best for her and her team? Let’s explore a few times when that should be her choice.


Twitter began with a principle when it was asked to shut down multiple accounts by the Government. It said it would defend freedom of speech, the right of people to disagree, the right to protest against injustice. But within days they reversed position. They decided that profits were more important than the principle, and chose not to walk away. One of their senior executives resigned in the midst of all this back and forth. We don’t know the real reason why, but I like to believe that she chose to walk away because she chose principle over her job. I remember my Dad in his career, when forced to choose between his principles and the security of the job, choosing to stick with his principles at great personal cost. He chose to walk away rather than compromise on his principles.

Wasim Jaffer, the well-known cricketer, recently faced the same situation and chose to walk away. In spite of trying to do the right thing, fairly and without bias, when outside interests interfered, he chose to step aside rather than compromise. Voices in his support have been rather few and muted. Many former and current cricketers are unwilling to walk away from their need to be liked and accepted by the establishment crowd. They’d rather protect current and future income streams than stand up for the person who’s doing the principled thing.




Former India opener Wasim Jaffer





These are golden moments where a leader can demonstrate true leadership. Only seven Republicans found the courage to lead when it was time to walk away from their megalomaniac ‘leader’. Principles become real, only when you can demonstrate the strength and resolve to walk away because of your conviction in them.




Perseverance or insanity

There’s a fine line between the two. Stubborn leaders have often destroyed their teams and their companies pursuing an idea that’s dead — only they don’t know it. They plunge ahead, citing perseverance, but in reality, they’ve crossed that fine line. When a leader sees an idea he’s championed, a division he’s continued to support, a person he’s continued to back, repeatedly fail he should realise that it’s time to walk away.

We’ve seen this happen several times in a relationship with a toxic boss or a toxic client. The temptation is to stay the course because of the stakes involved. We need to please the boss so we can get that raise, we can get that promotion — but unfortunately we end up sacrificing much, much more in a Faustian bargain. The same is true with a terrible client — sometimes abusive, often unreasonable, always pushing for more without giving anything back. The leader tends to hold on, to persuade his team mates to grin and bear it because the revenue is coming in. The story is told of the phenomenal people-leader Herb Kelleher dealing with one such customer. Nothing could make her happy. She complained about everything, every time. When the letters were finally escalated to Kelleher, he had a swift response: “Dear Mrs Crabapple,” he wrote, “we will miss you. Love, Herb.”

As Warren Buffet says: “I have three boxes — in, out and too hard.” A successful billionaire like him does not waste time on things that go in the too hard box, and he does put a majority of stuff in there. Leaders must learn to get that sense of when it’s the right time to persist and when the cost of persisting is just too high. Silicon Valley summarises this attitude with its motto: “Fail fast, fail cheap”

When you win the battle, but are likely to lose the war

Richard Branson’s story of Shawn refusing the coin toss is an example. Several acquisitions have soured because senior leaders became too invested, too early. They see only the facts that support their case but ignore those that don’t. In a HBR article, the authors narrate an incident (Harvard Business Review, April 2004, When to Walk Away from a Deal, Geoffrey Cullinan, Jean-Marc Le Roux and Rolf-Magnus Weddigen).

In 2000 Benoît Bassi, a Managing Director at Bridgepoint, a leading European private equity firm, pushed hard with his partners for the deal to acquire a fruit-processing company from French liquor company Pernod Ricard. After a tough meeting he got the ‘okay’ to go ahead. A few weeks later, he killed the deal. Due diligence showed that many of the assumptions behind the deal didn’t pan out as expected. As he put it: “What we thought we knew turned out to be wrong.” Leaders need to keep that distance and stay detached. The destination should be in sight, but the route should not be something they get attached to. It can cloud decision making and send the organisation hurtling to a terrible outcome.

As Neil McCauley in the classic movie Heat would say: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything that you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Smart advice from a bank robber on the run, but it’s a good input for leaders to consider.




Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley in Heat   -  Source: @right_movies Twitter




What are the things that will prevent us from walking away even though we know it’s right to — is it money, the perks of a job, a promotion we’re chasing, a deal we want to win at any cost? It’s good to remember Neil’s advice and be prepared for the time when we need to walk. The strength in our legs to make that walk will come from the conviction in our heart. The prize to be gained by walking is bigger than the price we pay for staying — our integrity, our authenticity, our leadership.