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Is your leadership ‘all-in’?

My executive coaching clients are used to me using analogies from the game of poker to bring a different perspective to our conversations. Poker reminds me of leadership because it has that same addictive mix of left brain and right brain challenges combined with a heavy dose of luck. However adept you are at the maths of poker and however perceptive you are with the psychology, luck always threatens to intervene in dramatic style. That’s what makes leadership and poker such endless challenge and fun!

There is a phrase in poker known as going ‘all-in’. This means that a player decides to commit all their remaining chips to back a particularly strong hand they are holding. It takes courage to go ‘all-in’ because you risk losing everything. However, if a player never goes ‘all-in’ then they risk dying a death of a thousand cuts. Chip by chip, hand by hand, they will allow themselves to be picked off waiting for the perfect hand that never comes, waiting to eliminate the luck factor which is not possible due to the inherent design of the game. In poker this strategy is called ‘limping’.

Applying this analogy to coaching and leadership, there is a point in the conversation when an effective coach or leader knows that the most effective strategy is to go ‘all-in’. To commit. To make a stand. To challenge others as to whether they are ‘all-in’ or whether they are limping from one day to the next, slipping slowly but surely into a malaise of collective mediocrity that does not serve them or the organisation.

all in

A vivid and literal example of this ‘all-in’ strategy happened on the Vistage Chair training course I attended in San Diego. Thursday’s agenda was to be facilitated by a sales guru called David Hibbard. On the Wednesday evening, David circulated a one page contract to all the attendees which asked us to commit and be ‘all-in’ for the Thursday session. Some participants got suspicious and did not sign the document. In the morning those people were told to sit at the back of the room as David declared ‘I only want to play with those who are ‘all-in”.

Ten minutes into the session, David asked for a volunteer. Some hands went up. Others didn’t. David went up to one person who had said they were ‘all-in’ but hadn’t put their hand up and told him to go to the back of the room. ‘I only want to play with those who are ‘all-in” he reiterated. It was the most brutal form of contracting I have ever witnessed yet for those hardy peers who were still ‘all-in’ by the end of the day it led to the most rewarding, challenging and uplifting training session I had been part of for many a year.

So it comes down to this. Are you ‘all-in’ with your coaching and your leadership? Do you expect those you work with to be ‘all-in’ also? How do you know you are ‘all-in’? How do you know they are ‘all-in’ without the brutal honesty of the David Hibbard form of contracting and re-contracting? ‘But I’m not a gambler I hear you say. I don’t play poker. I don’t agree with it’. ‘Well go and sit at the back of the room then!’ I can hear David beseeching. Have a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable. Take it easy. And let others take the lead. For leadership without risk is like poker without cards. It’s a non-starter, an oxymoron, a mind-numbing waste of time.

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