Fortitude usually shows up high on the list of attributes of a great leader.

Great leaders best display fortitude not by taking bold risks and implementing aggressive programs, but by the honesty with which they deliver feedback to their staffers. It takes great fortitude to look someone in the eye and respectfully deliver the feedback he or she needs to hear, especially when that feedback means addressing performance shortcomings in a staffer's overall performance.

Most leaders I've met and worked with would give themselves marks of "meet standards" or better for fortitude. So why does the following scenario play out constantly across organizations large and small?

Mary Leader: "John, we have to do a layoff, and I'm afraid that we are going to have to let you go."

John Staffer: "How can that be? I've been rated outstanding in my last three performance reviews and given solid raises each year!"

Mary Leader: "Well, we needed to make a cut, and your performance was the lowest overall. I'm so sorry."

Let's rewind the clock to three or four years earlier and take a look at what happened. Like most employees, John Staffer did some things well and other things not as well. Charged with coaching and directing John, Mary Leader found it easy to tell John the things he did well. Her challenge was in dealing with things John did not do as well.

In the autopsy of the situation, Mary admitted, "I thought I was doing John a favor by overlooking his weaker areas. I know he was trying hard, and I wanted to get him the best raise possible. So I figured if I just give him more time, he'd figure it out eventually and be OK." Mary went on to say that she often spoke in staff meetings about the performance standards having to be met or exceeded, including those in which John underperformed.

It was just that at review time, Mary did not want to call John out in these areas. The reality of the situation was that Mary lacked the leadership fortitude to deliver the difficult message that John's performance was lacking.

In addition to the news of John's layoff, there are other problematic questions arising from Mary's lack of leadership fortitude:

  • John's co-workers knew he was deficient in the performance areas and wondered why Mary permitted John's substandard performance. How much has their trust of Mary's leadership been affected?
  • Were new, lower standards put into effect by Mary calling below-average performance "meets standards" on John's evaluations?
  • John has a decision to make: Does he accept the layoff and move on, or does he talk to an attorney to find out if there are grounds for a claim of discrimination?
  • Over time, what was the compound impact on the department and its customers by not promptly correcting John's substandard performance?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What if several years earlier:

  • Mary, upon observing John's performance, immediately gave John feedback on what he was doing well and not so well?
  • Mary described each performance standard and why it had to be consistently met or exceeded?
  • Mary described what she observed in John's performance relative to the standards, and described the difference (whether good or bad) and how that difference impacted the unit?
  • Mary problem-solved with John to address all his performance shortcomings?
  • Mary accurately and fairly held John accountable for meeting all of his performance standards?

It is quite likely the eventual layoff of John could have been avoided, and in the process, Mary would have demonstrated the leadership fortitude possessed by great leaders.