The Purposeful Leader

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Doing Hard Things

Leadership, Management, Values

I’ve fired a lot of people.

People I’ve worked with for only a couple of days, people I’ve worked with for years, people who were (and still are) my friends and people who I will never see or speak to again. Some of them saw it coming. Some absolutely did not. Some later thanked me. Some probably still seethe when they think about me.

I don’t like firing people. I haven’t ever, and I never will. And I don’t want to.

I want the decision to end someone’s employment to feel weighty. Like something I do with great care. Like something that has a potentially huge impact on someone else’s life.

I want it to be a big deal.

This isn’t a post about firing people. But firing people is such a great way to explore being intentional in our leadership, and in managing our minds as leaders.

Because every leader has parts of leadership they’d rather not do.

What do you wish you could remove from your job as a leader?

What situations or conversations unnerve you, or make your face turn red, or make your stomach turn?

I’m serious. Think about them. Write them down. I’ll wait.

These hard things are full of opportunities, saturated with the learning that is exactly what we need to become more deliberate, clear, confident leaders. The lessons they contain apply not just when the going gets tough, but to all our actions, decisions and relationships.

And that’s important not just because growth is good. But also because they’re not going away.

Really think about that. Is there a future in which you can be an effective leader and not have hard conversations? Is there a future in which growing as a leader doesn’t require you to ever be uncomfortable?

Nope.

And like with firing people, if it’s inevitable, you might as well have some agency. You might as well do it your way, with skill, as opposed to the way your lizard brain would have you respond — from fear, resistance or avoidance.

Because feeling the victim of the hard things . . . feeling like we “have to” do them, doesn’t teach us anything, and makes them harder. Option one: do the hard thing intentionally, probably feel uncomfortable doing it. Option two: resist having to do the hard thing, do it while resisting it and feeling twice as uncomfortable because it’s not just hard, but you hate how hard it is.

I’ll take option one.

There are four steps to getting your head in the game for the stuff you’d rather not do. Let’s take a look. I’m going to use terminating someone as an example (before you send an email: I’m assuming a thorough performance management process has already taken place), but imagine whatever situation you prefer.

Start Big Picture

Zoom out on the situation. Think about all the moving parts, all the affected parties, and the potential impact.

  • What message does keeping someone who’s underperforming send to the rest of the team?
  • What’s the impact on morale?
  • What message does it send to the people who are exceeding expectations?
  • Would this person really ever be successful if they stayed in their current role?
  • How much time will it take to continue to manage this person?
  • What impact will their performance have on team or business results?

These answers are important because our brains want us to focus on short-term, small-picture thoughts, rather than well-being, the long-run, and the big picture.

Question Small-Picture Thoughts

The loop in our heads about things we’d rather not do contains thoughts that are almost always exclusively about short-term discomfort.

She’ll hate me. I hate having conversations like this. This sucks. Her husband just lost his job.

Here’s the thing: when we start big-picture, our high-altitude thoughts have an answer for every one of these.

She’ll hate me. She might hate me, but I’m doing this for the sake of my team, and ultimately, also for her. It’s either now or in 6 months when it’s even more painful. Putting this off doesn’t have an upside.

I hate having conversations like this. I hate the consequences of not having conversations like this even more.

This sucks. I do things that suck all the time. I’m even pretty good at some of them.

Her husband just lost his job. That’s hard. But it’s also unrelated. This is the right decision for the team and the company.

Allow Feelings

Part of what’s so hard about the things we don’t like is that we think the feelings we have about them are danger signals. I’ve never felt happy about firing someone. But I have decreased my stress significantly by allowing myself to feel nervous or sad instead of thinking I had to eliminate those feelings before proceeding.

We’re a lot more clear and calm when we know exactly what we want to say and don’t tell ourselves we have to be glad about it.

I’ve used this example before, but it’s such a good one: have you ever tried not to cry? If you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Trying not to cry always results in crying. Every time. Okay, in the rare instances when it doesn’t, it results in a tomato-red face and a shaky voice and weird syntax, because you’re trying to avoid saying the things that you think will make you cry when you say them.

It is possible to respect or even love a person, want to serve them, make the decision that their success is elsewhere, and feel disappointed about it. All at once.

In fact, allowing all of these things simultaneously makes you better at your job. Because you’re not believing the BS your brain is giving you that makes you want to avoid doing the thing that needs doing, or the lie your brain is telling you that makes you resist it and so do it poorly in an attempt to get away from it as quickly as possible.

Think Deliberately

What do you want to think about the thing you’d rather not do? Or better yet, what do you already think that gets confused by your lizard brain when the situation arises?

Here’s what I think, on purpose, about terminations:

  • Serving someone is not the same as pleasing them.
  • Their long-term well-being is more important than my short-term comfort.
  • Knowing what needs to be done and not doing it isn’t an option.
  • The welfare of the team has to come before the welfare of the individuals on the team.

And over many years, I eventually came to: If this has to be done, which it does, I’d rather be the one to do it.

That was surprising at first, but if you think about it, it makes total sense. If I were going to be fired, I’d want to be fired by someone who chose to look the thing in the face. Someone who didn’t like doing it but decided that there were more important factors than like or dislike. Someone who was thinking about me, and my experience, and who, even in making a hard decision, was making it in service.

Hard things are inevitable.

Choosing to do them well is everything.

You can do hard things well.


Is your time filled with supporting your team through every struggle, problem, and decision? Do you want a different future where they feel more independent, and your job is to support them, remove obstacles, and have time to focus on your other priorities? Most people who rise to leadership positions aren’t taught about leadership. They are taught about management — knowing policy + procedure + internal politics. They are taught to follow guidelines, and direct others to do the same. Management and management training reinforce societal beliefs about power, control and influence. They leave managers thinking their job is to make sure the rules are followed, and team relationships based on management leave employees thinking their job is to follow the rules. So they ask for permission, try to do it “right,” and don’t learn independent decision making. They also disengage from their work because they have no ownership over it. Leading is different. Leadership motivates, inspires, answers the questions that connect people to purpose, that drive them forward, that unite teams. Are you ready to lead a group of autonomous, empowered adults who push themselves for the sake of a bigger vision? Let’s talk about taking your leadership capacity to the next level by working together. Schedule a free consultation call.