“If a battle cannot be won, do not fight it.” —Sun Tzu
It was a minor victory, a relatively unimportant point that wouldn’t make any difference in the end. But it was on that point that he made his final stand. He dug in, alienated most of the people in the room, and fell on his proverbial sword. With victory in hand, he sat back with a satisfied look on his face, basking in the win. But at what cost?
Had he been even slightly self-aware, he might have noticed the shaking heads and rolling eyes around the room. Had he been more attentive, he would have realized that he surrendered every other point. Had he listened to the other voices, he might have understood that the cost of his win would have long-term implications. Yes, he won his point. But was it worth it?
Some battles are worth fighting, others are better left for another day. Knowing the difference – knowing when to pick your battles – is a key determinant on the road to success. Fight every battle and you’re going to exhaust the patience and tolerance of those around you. Surrender every battle and you’ll be steamrolled on every issue that matters.
So, how do you know when to take a stand and when to take a knee? Experience helps, but experience is also something you never seem to have until after you need it. That’s where a few simple questions come in handy.
1. Does it really matter?
Is it really all that important? Some battles just don’t make a difference in the long run. And if the battle you want to fight falls into that category, you would be well-advised to focus your energy elsewhere. Think long term and be honest with yourself before committing to this battle.
2. Is it worth the effort?
Every battle consumes time, not to mention mental, physical, and emotional energy. And not just yours, but those of the people around you. You might win a battle by exhausting your opponents, but over time you’ll wear yourself down while at the same time damaging relationships and losing influence. You won’t be revered as a hardy opponent but reviled as stubborn and obtuse.
3. Is it your battle?
There’s a fine line between “covering your buddy’s six” and fighting their battles for them. Every time you fight a battle for someone else, you’re not only undercutting their credibility (and likely alienating them) but reducing your own ability to fight battles that matter. Recognize that line and respect it. Be there for your colleagues but let them fight their own battles.
4. What are the costs?
Win or lose, there are costs to every battle. Before you commit to battle, you must have an appreciation for the risks involved, understand the downstream implications of winning or losing, and take the time to perform at least a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis. A clear view of the costs of winning or losing is essential to choosing whether a battle is worth fighting.
5. Can you walk away with a clear conscience?
Ultimately, walking away from a battle is a matter of heart. If you choose to fight another day, can you live with your decision? Will your compromise your values? There are certain battles that simply must be fought, even if doing so means alienating your leadership or upsetting your colleagues. When you follow your conscience, never lose sight of the consequences, which might be severe. But, if that’s what it takes for you to maintain a clear conscience, then it’s a battle you should fight.
Picking your battles is only half the fight. You want to live to fight another day, and that means fighting the problem, not the people around you. When you commit to battle, find solutions that don’t leave others feeling defeated, that don’t undercut the authority of the leaders around you, and that don’t leave you dancing in the end zone by yourself. When you choose to battle, find the “win-win” solution that makes everyone feel like they came out on the side of success. Those victories pay the greatest dividends in the long run.