The Tough Side of Being a Leader

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A core part of every leader’s duty, regardless of rank, is having the wisdom and courage to sever the relationship with someone whose performance or behavior either persistently or grossly fails to meet expectations. It’s what we get paid to do. Failure on our part to either notice the condition or take decisive action represents a fraud against the person, their teammates, and the organization as a whole.

Such a fraud was committed yesterday when National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern opted to suspend rather than terminate the services of a player for a vicious, deliberate hit against an opponent. The player in this case is Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace), who leveled Oklahoma City Thunder player James Harden in Sunday’s nationally televised game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Thunder. No stranger to unacceptable, violent behavior (on court and off), Artest has reportedly been suspended twelve (yes, 12) previous times in his thirteen-year career as an NBA professional.

Two things are evident from this record: 1) Mr. Artest is an individual who no longer deserves to be called a professional, by virtue of his unwillingness to control his behavior, 2) Sending him to “time out” doesn’t do any good. Where are Donald Trump and his elevator when we need them?

The question, for us at least, isn’t what to do about the NBA’s latest thuggish behavior, but rather, what happens to the Ron Artests on your team? No, you probably don’t have anyone on the payroll who has committed multiple batteries, but what about those who can’t seem to control their bigotry or bully tendencies? How about those who are clearly incapable of playing nice with others, or perhaps those who Professor  Robert Sutton referred to so aptly in his book, The No Asshole Rule?.

If you’ve been in a leadership role for any reasonable length of time, you’ve likely faced at least one of these characters. But have you dealt, really dealt with them? Our experience suggests that in too many cases, managers duck the issue because it’s hard, because it can damage your popularity for a while, you don’t want the hassle of extra scrutiny and lengthy termination procedures imposed by the folks in HR, and besides, as short as job tenures are these days, you might get a hall pass and title of the problem will transfer to a new owner. When that happens, not unlike the current day NBA, both you and the organization will pay a high price in lost respect, credibility, and business outcomes.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Deal with these situations sooner, not later. The passage of time with no intervention almost always makes the matter worse. The minute you decide that an employee needs to be on someone else’s payroll (preferably a competitor’s), start that process.
  2. Not unlike any other surgical procedure, get a 2nd and 3rd opinion. Ask a fellow manager whose opinion and discretion you trust to dispassionately review the matter. Invite an HR professional to do the same. Trust us on this one. Most of them provide valuable advice, and they really do have your (and the organization’s) best interests at heart.
  3. Be mindful of your own culpability. If you have in some way failed to be clear with the person about your expectations, or giving them a fair chance to succeed, own it and rectify it. Otherwise, step up to your duty.

“Avoiding the solution of a tough, miserable, volatile problem is not discretion. It is cowardice. And it is robbery. … Any coach who doesn’t kick the complacent ass on his team will end up kicking his own before long.”–Pat Riley, The Winner Within

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