When Do You Quit?

Aug 05, 2016 1 Min Read
A group of employees together


The late David Packard of Hewlett-Packard once said, “more companies die from overeating than starvation.”

He was referring to those companies that lack focus through trying to deliver all things to all customers. This leads, more often than not, to companies circling the drain because they fail to sail their ship in any one particular direction.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was on the brink of collapse thanks somewhat to a bulging product line which Jobs worked to strip by 70%, deciding to instead focus on developing just four main products for professional and everyday use.

Steve Jobs

Jobs later recalled his return and justified the course of action saying, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”

And so it is with our personal and professional lives. Often, success comes with letting go of what’s holding us back from what we truly want to achieve. Sometimes, we can be caught off-guard by a steady build-up of what we think are priorities that instead turn out to be superficial to-do items that offer no real value to our growth.

Knowing when to let go

Whenever we try to be all things to all people, it’s not going to work out well for ourselves or others in the long run.

It doesn’t help that we are overwhelmed by antimetaboles such as, “winners never quit, and quitters never win,” which sound good, but fall some way short in terms of offering sound and practical guidance.

Like most conventional wisdom, the idea that quitting equates to failure or weakness is sorely misguided. It’s much better, we’re told, to grin and bear the struggles and carry on regardless – that’s the way to show strength. Except, it’s not.

In leadership, as in personal life, strength lies in knowing the best course of action to take in any given set of circumstances; it’s not a display of strength to keep ploughing on when there’s no benefit to ourselves or others in doing so – that’s a display of mindlessness.

In her book, Impossible is Stupid, Osayi Emokpae Lasisi writes: “Quitting is not giving up, it’s choosing to focus your attention on something more important. Quitting is not losing confidence, it’s realising that there are more valuable ways you can spend your time.

“Quitting is not making excuses, it’s learning to be more productive, efficient and effective instead. Quitting is letting go of things (or people) that are sucking the life out of you so you can do more things that will bring you strength.”

Quitting is leading

Nelson Mandela

In 1994, Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. At the time, he was 75 years old and despite the certainty that he could have carried on, he retired five years later, insisting that he was too old to govern.

While this might now seem like the sensible choice to take, it was, at that time, a rarity for an African leader to relinquish control. Why on earth would anyone spend their life fighting for equality and justice, only to give up the reins after a short while of being in power?

But Mandela knew that South Africa would be better carried forward and served by allowing new blood to take the reins and write the next chapter in the country’s history. As a renowned leader recognised throughout the world for his patience, perseverance and sound judgement, quitting was not only an option for Mandela, it was a smart move for South Africa and the wise course to take for himself and his family after decades of fighting, struggle and hardship.

As Mandela pointed out, “Quitting is leading, too.” In leadership, we often hear about how the best leaders hire the best people and then “get out of their way.” However, some leaders who possess awareness of their circumstances will know that it’s sometimes best to step aside altogether in the best interests of those they serve as well as for their own sake and sanity.

Quitting might be foolish if there’s much work still to be done and a leader rashly quits following a setback or two. As the saying goes, nothing worth having comes easy – it takes grit, determination and focus to push towards the kind of success that reflects our core values and principles.

But it’s equally foolish to keep pushing on if it’s obvious that the current path has come to a dead end, or when an individual recognises that he or she has neither the vision nor the tools to carry an idea or an organisation beyond a certain point.

In a nutshell

When the best leaders – or indeed, the best people – find themselves at a crossroads in their journey, they take the time to evaluate their situation and are able to purposefully decide on their next course of action. Ultimately, they know the difference between quitting for its own sake, and having the wisdom to know when it’s best to move on.

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Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of www.leaderonomics.com, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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