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Leaders, Place Your Bets.

As a leader, maybe you don’t think of yourself as a poker player.

You may not know a thing about “ the flop” or a “bad beat” when playing cards. However, I would wager you are either earning or spending influence “chips” on a daily basis. For leaders, as in poker, learning when to bet, check or go all-in can make or break a person’s capacity to lead well.

Years ago, I had my own life lesson with this concept and it came at a price.

I was walking into my first official meeting with our executive team. Even before my new role in charge of operations and all staff personnel had officially begun, I had identified some recognition gaps between our directors, managers, and team leaders. Excited for positive cultural change, I informed our team that day of my plan to implement a recognition program to cover those gaps. In addition, I asked that all executive leaders and managers roll out this new program immediately.

Based on my new positional title, I had received some “chips” in my new leadership role. In my eagerness to get in the game, I used them all immediately to make some organizational changes. My staff and team went along with my idea because I was in charge. However, I had spent little time establishing trust or cultivating ownership in this new program. Eventually my bright idea floundered due to a lack of ownership. I was left with a hard truth: my initial bet had cost me more than I had gained.

The poker chip metaphor did not originate with me.

However, from the first time I heard the topic referenced in connection with influence, it resonated as a concrete concept for leadership influence that often feels intangible. Each of us receives a small stack of chips when we assume a leadership role, launch a business, oversee a department or establish a new client relationship. Just like placing a bad bet, some chips can be lost easily. Each time a leader draws on exclusively positional power in place of relational power, his or her chip pile decreases. When a leader inadvertently demonstrates concern for self over others, more chips are lost. Leaders with a chip shortfall will struggle to sustain influence within an organization. In the worst case, they will end up leaving the table for good.

The good news is that we can also intentionally earn chips.

Every time a leader provides clarity or chooses to actively listen, a chip is gained. Anytime a leader galvanizes the team around a compelling purpose, chips are deposited. Expressing concern for others through actions can up a leader’s chip count exponentially. COVID-19, for example, has provided an opportunity for the demonstration of tactical empathy toward staff at unprecedented levels.

Know how and when to risk it all.

The riskiest bet to place, both in poker and leadership, is the one in which you risk every chip you have and “go all-in.” Usually these decisions come in moments of crisis or change. You are calling upon every moment of earned trust. You feel that this decision is worth the “chip” risk. Influential leaders know when to risk and when to wait for the next hand to be played.

How will you play?

A good place to begin is by assessing your own stack of chips. Where are you in the chip count of your organization or clientele perception? What are some chip earning or burning behaviors in your leadership style? What were the chip results of the last decision you made? How can you optimize chip earning behaviors?

Wise leaders take the time to give thought to their influence. I encourage you to give your chip count a second look.


Erik Dees is a Partner with Milestone Leadership. He can be reached at edees@milestoneleadership.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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