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Firing a Good Friend

This lesson is a part of an audio course Unconventional Crisis Management by Paul Andrew Smith

Orville Sweet was CEO of a major cattle association. And as any CEO will tell you, one of their unenviable tasks is having to fire a close friend and colleague. And at one point, that’s exactly what Orville had to do. Now for our purposes, the details of the firing aren’t nearly as important as what happened a few days after.

Orville got a call from the wife of the man he’d let go. Apparently, he wasn’t coping very well. In fact, she was concerned he was suicidal. So, Orville asked her to put him on the phone. The guy admitted he was having a hard time, but he said he’d pull it together. But, Orville could hear the stress in his voice. And he knew both the man and his wife well enough to understand the gravity of the situation. All of a sudden, what started as a simple employee termination had become a real human crisis.

Instinctively, Orville made a suggestion that surprised the man (and probably himself). He said:

“Well, why don’t you come back?”

“Really? You’re hiring me back?”

“Sure, why not? We haven’t filled the position, and your office is still empty.”

“Well, of course I will! Thanks, Orville. I’ll be there first thing in the morning.”

Now, his return, of course, confused everyone in the office. But out of respect, Orville just told them he was coming back to his old job. He didn’t say anything about his emotional state or the suicidal suspicions his wife was having.

Well, after three or four uneventful weeks, the man came to see Orville in his office. He said, “Orville, I really want to thank you for letting me come back. I guess I wasn’t ready to go. Or maybe I just wanted to leave on my own terms. Either way, I’m ready now. I’ll have my office cleared out by this afternoon.” He shook Orville’s hand, and walked out. And true to his word, he packed up his things, and left the office for the second time—but this time with his head held high. You know, whatever reasons had led to him losing his job were certainly still true. He knew that. The extra time Orville gave him just allowed him to accept it.

Now, Orville’s decision to bring a terminated employee back to the office must violate the good senses of every professional human resources manager today. I mean, conventional wisdom would suggest keeping someone like that as far away from the office as possible. Or, maybe a compassionate boss might send him to counseling, but at least alert corporate security in case something happened.

Now, is it possible those more orthodox reactions could have worked out just as well? Sure, maybe. But what’s certain is that Orville’s unconventional solution saved the man’s dignity, and quite possibly his life.

Alright, here’s the lesson. Sometimes, especially in times of crisis, a leader needs to trust his or her own instincts. Rules and policy manuals are generally written for normal times. They couldn’t possibly predict the unique, messy, human details of every crisis that might arise. Sometimes the leader needs to give themselves permission to use their judgment and intuition to make an unconventional decision. In fact, real leadership requires that every once in a while. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need great leaders. We’d just need great rule-followers. So, when you find yourself in a leadership position in a time of crisis, give yourself permission to lead, not just follow.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll see how a fortune 50 company responded to a political revolution in Egypt when it literally started threatening their employees' lives.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith