Leading with Courage and Integrity

If you consider yourself a caring person at work, the crushing weight of feeling responsible for how those around you feel and respond to your actions can become suffocating. I want to tell you a story. One that I hope helps you realize:

We cannot control how somebody feels. We can only act in ways that allow them to feel their best. The rest is up to them.

I was a senior manager in a regional team years ago and through paygrade and responsibility level considered the right-hand person to the head of the department. This was not the first constellation we had worked in together, so we had had plenty of time to build a candid, honest and trusting relationship.

While wonderful, I want you to keep the nature of this relationship in mind as it will complicate things a little further down the line.

One day he came to me with a challenge. Another manager, more than 10 years with the company and currently on an assignment in one of the markets, was either causing trouble or was in trouble (the market he was deployed in was known for not being what you and I would call “easy”). Which of the two was not clear at the time, but the company decided that it was worth giving him another shot. My manager asked me to take this someone under my wing as a direct report once they pulled him back into our central regional team.

Kindness, courage and integrity

The depth of our professional relationship aside, I was asked to perform this task because I had always, very publicly, stuck to my guns: kindness, courage, integrity. More on that in a second.

As I am setting the scene for what follows, I think it is important to mention one thing. When he arrived, the first thing we did was sit down together and establish a mutual understanding of the situation. He knew (which does not equal emotional acceptance) that he was on a type of probation by being placed in my team. We talked it through and established rules of engagement for being with one another before we set sail.

Fast forward to 9 months down the road. It was not working out and I won’t bore you with the details as to why. While I didn’t have or wanted the authority to action a dismissal, I could not deny that my word would carry weight in the final decision and therefore could also not deny that I had a responsibility towards this person having a chance to recognize his circumstance. So I invited him to my office. I entered this conversation as I entered all those that came before: with kindness, courage, integrity.

I wanted to neither whistleblow nor threaten. I wanted to be truthful and lead him into a mindset of acceptance for the possibility that he might be well advised to start working on a plan b. It did not go as intended. He was shocked, aghast and enraged that I dared “confront” him in this fashion after all the years and hard work he had invested in the company. It had become his home in a way and when our home is threatened, we react. Right?

Work is not your home

Wrong, at least in this context. No matter how much your subconscious might start to associate values of home with a place of work (it is a normal reflex), it isn’t your home. It is a contract. A contract that will remain in place for as long as it serves both parties’ interests. If one of the parties, or both in mutual agreement, decides that it is time to part ways, ways will be parted. I have always lived by this principle, that everyday in the office could be my last. Not because I was insecure or had impostor syndrome. Simply because I knew that I may one day not be the right person for what the company needed anymore, or because I would decide that the company no longer offers what I need (which is eventually what happened).

This conversation was further complicated by something I mentioned earlier. My manager and I knew each other well, we liked and respected each other. He had a soft spot for the person on probation and it is all too easy to lose your grip on your principles in a situation like this. You don’t want to see someone you care about unhappy or forced into an uncomfortable position. We can say “it is just work” all we like, when the relationships between individuals that make up a company are concerned, this is not a cold and clinical affair.

I was eventually asked to provide my review for the person that entered my team and it was negative. My manager seemed surprised and decided to rather take the person in question under his own wing. Fast forward another 3 months and the inevitable happened: the person I had reviewed was asked to leave.

Stick to the principles you believe in

Of course I wasn’t happy with what happened. Being caught in a storm of emotions, some negative and directed at you despite your best intentions, is not a great feeling. What I was happy with is how I behaved during this time. I was happy that I remained truthful with myself and lived the principles I believed in: kindness, courage, integrity.

The important thing to remember is this: We cannot control how somebody feels. We can only act in ways that allow them to feel their best. The rest is up to them.

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