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The Hardest Decision a Leader Makes – Letting People Go

By November 18, 2021Church, Leadership

Perhaps the hardest decision a leader makes is when to release someone from employment. I’ve only known a few callous people who weren’t extremely burdened by having to fire someone. Making any kind of employment decision comes with the sobering reality, regardless of what the person did wrong, that the decision will likely impact others who are many times innocent.

In working with pastors this issue is one of the hardest they face. The church is often notorious for delaying these type decisions – often in the name of grace. (I’m always equally concerned about being good stewards of the Kingdom investment people make in the church.)

And it’s an issue few seem to want to talk about. Yet it’s one we all struggle with personally.

I’ve heard great leaders say repeatedly that we should “hire slow” and “fire fast”. I agree, but that’s much easier to say than it is to do. In fact, it’s painful to follow this principle. The opposite seems more appealing. Most of us would rather rush someone in the door and then be very slow to get rid of them even when we know it’s needed. 

Sometimes the decision is made for us. Or at least is made clearer.

  • If someone is caught stealing.
  • Someone that blatantly (and continually) defies authority.
  • If someone is abusive to other team members.

Those aren’t easy situations either, and due process, fairness, and grace should still play a part, but sometimes people make it easier for us to clarify what needs to happen. (I’m not saying termination is always the case. The offense is made clearer though.)

Often the hardest decision for me as a leader, but one I’ve had to make numerous times, is when I have to release someone for less obvious offenses. They aren’t clear-cut, black and white issues.

Years ago, I had someone on my team who was a tremendous producer. One of our best. He could sell anything. Taking a strictly bottom line approach he made the company money. But it was some of the external, not as easy to define aspects of his employment that made him a poor fit for the team. He was disrespectful, never attended meetings, bad-mouthed the company, etc.

It was hard to lose a top performer, but there were larger issues at stake. I had to make a hard decision.

There are multiple situations where a hard decision needs to be made, but it is from a seemingly gray area. It isn’t always clear when to make the decision. Yet, many times in my experience we know something needs to be done, but we simply haven’t made the decision. 

A few examples of the hardest decision I have personally had to make as a leader:

The person has lost credibility with the team.

This could be with peers, a team he or she leads, or with volunteers. At this point  the energy trying to repair their relationships would be too overwhelming. Everyone else is wondering why you haven’t moved sooner to make a hard decision. Sometimes it’s best for everyone if we simply start with a clean slate.

The person refuses to support the overall vision.

They may have the skills to be outstanding, but their attitude causes them to serve as more of a cancer to the team than an asset.

The person’s heart has “left the building”.

They are ready to move on to something else, so they no longer give their full heart to the job. And everyone already knows it. It could be bringing down the morale and work ethic of the rest of the team. It could just be that the best is not being achieved anymore. Best is never achieved without a heart for the work.

The person’s actions or reputation discredits everything the mission claims to be.

Sometimes the integrity of the organization is at stake. Sadly, I’ve seen this with people who go through personal life changes, such as having an affair. Even if it happened totally outside their work life, they bring their drama to work. Everyone goes through bad seasons — whether self-produced or of no personal cause, and grace should be applied generously, but a healthy team can’t live in high periods of drama for long.

Frankly, and sadly, some people simply never recover. They continue making bad decisions, or their heart never returns to the job they were once doing. It may even be that they need a change forced upon them before they can move forward again.

Again, hard decisions. Not always easy to define. Not clean and simple.

This doesn’t mean you fire in each of these scenarios. No two situations are alike. If this post seems harsh you haven’t worked with me. I’m almost always on the side of grace. But it does mean red flags are drawn. And, as a good leader, you don’t ignore the situation or pretend it doesn’t exist. You have to do something or nothing will ever change — and will likely get worse.

Making the right decision protects the organization, the teams involved, and, often, the ability of the team to respect your leadership. At times, people are wondering why you’ve waited so long to do something.

If you find yourself in one of these situations:

  • Bathe it in prayer.
  • Seek wise counsel, whether that’s in the church or outside the church. (My wife is always one of these.) 
  • I almost always consult with an attorney or employment expert.
  • Ask confidential advisors – not many – but people you know are trustworthy and wiser or more experienced than you in these situations.

Never make these type decisions alone.

Finally, be open to the hard truth that the problem could be your leadership. That’s probably another post. 

Do you have a hard decision you need to make these days? It won’t be easy. It may even be a temporary setback in your leadership. But your credibility and success as a leader may depend on the quality of decision you make.

Check out my new website design and my 5T Leadership offerings. One thing I love helping leaders do is managing the transitions in their leadership and life. Let me know if I can help you.

Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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