We are in love with the image of an athlete who guides his team to victory against bigger, faster, and more skilled opponents. We like it best when that player is a quarterback, banged up and bloodied yet plays through pain to will his team to victory.

This hero story took a hit when Jay Cutler, quarterback of the Chicago Bears, allowed himself to be taken out of the NFC championship game because of an injured knee. Cutler admitted that his sore knee prevented him from playing at his best and so he went along with the coaching and medical staff’s decision to remove him from game. But, as Jim Trotter of SI.com reported, Cutler became visibly upset when told that other NFL players had questioned his toughness.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith, along with two players, came to Cutler’s defense. And the next day it was revealed that he had suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament, an injury that weakens the knee’s stability and hinders a quarterback’s ability to run and throw.

Never mind Cutler has missed only one game in his career. And due to the porousness of the Bears offensive line he is one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the game. Nonetheless Cutler must live with the image, at least until he returns to play next year, of being soft.

Too bad because Cutler has just given us a good example of a leader knowing his limits and removing himself from the field of play, not so he could rest but so his team could win. The Bears did not, but the backup QB Caleb Hanie did a credible job in directing a couple of scoring drives.

What we learn from Cutler’s example is that as much as a leader wants to succeed sometimes it is better to step aside for others. Cutler made his decision in minutes but others in leadership positions have much longer time to contemplate.

When the decision to quit is the leader’s own to make–and not the organization’s – here are three questions the leader must ask.

Am I able to help the team win? Physical limitations or illness can make the decision easy, but no less painful. Limitations resulting from a failure to perform and a loss of confidence may be more compelling reasons to quit.

Am I hurting the team’s ability to succeed? This question gets to the heart of capability. If circumstances prevent a leader from delivering his best, or at least helping others to do their best, then stepping aside may be the only recourse.

Can someone else do a better job? Very often a leader with limitations remains the best option but if there is someone more equipped for the current challenge then the reason to step aside becomes more imperative.

Leaders by nature are not quitters; they are achievers. Their drive for results is impressive and often comes at great sacrifice to themselves, that is, they put aside a more orderly life in order to attain their goals. That is why we love them. For such a leader the quest produces a high and that is why it can often be hard to step away from the action.

Good leaders know when to say when and in the process allow their team to achieve something they must deny themselves–the opportunity to succeed. That sacrifice often cuts more deeply but when done for the right reasons strengthens the leader for the next big challenge.

First posted on FastCompany.com on 1.25.11