Grit Gone Wild – How to Torpedo Your Brand In One Memo or Less

A client said to me once, “Really, Leslie, what does grace have to do with leadership? Does the heart really matter?” My answer is absolutely ‘yes,’ and Microsoft CEO Stephen Elop has given us a master class in why.

A couple of weeks ago, Elop sent out an all-company memo announcing layoffs at Microsoft. If you haven’t seen it yet, read it here. It’s spectacular – and not in a good way.

Elop began the memo by rambling on about business conditions and product line strategy, using passive voice corporate-speak. After eleven excruciating paragraphs, he finally got to the punchline: Microsoft will be laying off about 10% of its people over the next year. Elop took all of one sentence to address the human side: “These decisions are difficult for the team, and we plan to support departing team members with severance benefits.” What a peach.

I get it. Tough times require tough choices. But the mistake that Elop and so many other executives make is to become hyper-rational in implementing those choices.  They hide behind numbers, market share and productivity stats while taking actions that alter people’s very human lives. Yes, the decision will hurt.  But when leaders cut themselves off  from the humanity of the situation, they cause additional injury to those affected, to those who remain, to the culture and to…themselves.

Elop provides all leaders with a cautionary tale of what can happen when executives implement tough decisions with gritty objectivity alone.

1.  His own brand plummeted. The firings won’t hurt Elop’s reputation nearly as much as the robotic way in which he communicated his decision. I would suspect that he’s lost significant leadership credibility: not only within the walls of Microsoft, but also among the worldwide business community (thanks to social media). That memo makes him and his entire team of advisors look out of touch and utterly tone deaf.

2.  He undermined his own corporate strategy. Here is the first phrase of Microsoft’s Vision statement (from its website): “Global diversity and inclusion is an integral and inherent part of our culture, fueling our business growth while allowing us to attract, develop, and retain this best talent.” Trust me, Mr. Elop. If I’m the best and brightest, why would I want to work for a company that handles a firing that way?

3.  He’s given the ‘survivors’ more pain to process. Layoffs are always traumatic. But announcing a layoff the way Mr. Elop did adds insensitivity to injury. More pain means a longer recovery.

What’s important to remember is that while Elop’s actions were an epic example of what not to do, he’s by no means alone. I’ve seen many executives abandon their company’s core values when times get tough. I’ve seen them hide behind numbers when talking to people whose lives they’ve just upended. I’ve seen them take the stance that “This is just business,” when it’s a whole lot more than that.  What they don’t realize is this: extricating themselves from the humanity of a difficult business decision doesn’t only affect their people. It affects their own reputation and credibility as leaders. So does the heart matter? Heck yes.

What about you?

  1. When have you skirted away from the human side of a difficult decision?
  2. What’s your ‘way’ of doing that?
  3. What are you trying to avoid or protect by doing that?
  4. What might the costs have been – to individual employees, to the health of the organization, and to your own credibility as a leader?
  5. What would you have to do differently in order to carry out a difficult decision in a way that acknowledges the humanity of the people affected?




The Perils of ‘Idiot Compassion’

Early in my career, I managed a law firm. One of our administrative assistants – we’ll call her Liz – was consistently late to work. I knew that Liz had a very difficult home life; she lived in poverty with her mother, and was relied upon to help care for the younger children. Feeling for Liz’ challenges, I often forgave her tardiness. Compassionate, right? In the moment, maybe. In the long run, not so much. Within a couple of months, the entire administrative staff was playing fast and loose with their own start-times. Because of my leniency toward Liz, I had no credibility when I asked others to get to work on time. I discovered that my failure to skillfully hold standards for one person did direct damage to the productivity and morale of the whole. And all of it was done in the name of compassion.

I was talking recently to a senior leader, who described one of her subordinate  managers as a ‘teddy bear’ (we’ll call him Teddy). Teddy’s direct reports were completely demoralized because he was so gentle with them that they didn’t feel challenged. His most talented and ambitious folks were dying on the vine, withering under Teddy’s soft touch. His so-called kindness was creating personal misery and organizational sub-optimization.

Judy was a leader who thought of herself as a real people-person. Her style was collaborative and she influenced through the power of connection. The problem was that she was being undermined by her peers, who were fiercely loyal to her predecessor. Her only strategy for dealing with them was to amp up her level of collaboration, softening her own boundaries to accommodate their attacks. The result? Her staff suffered tremendously from her lack of advocacy for them. Their reputation suffered and their visibility and resources shriveled up. Judy’s staff did not experience her leadership as compassionate; they experienced it as neglectful.

When leaders take kindness to an extreme, when they fail to establish standards and hold boundaries, they can do real damage. This is what the Buddhists call “idiot compassion:” a kind of collapsed kindness that actually results in harm to self or others. In my own case, my idiot compassion was rooted in a lack of courage to confront something difficult. Maybe we’re avoiding a challenging external situation (as in Judy’s case).  Maybe we don’t want to threaten our self-image as being a ‘good person’ (as in Teddy’s and my case). But idiot compassion is almost always a real disservice.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of compassion. I still believe that it has a vital role in a leader’s efficacy. But ‘idiot compassion’ illustrates one of the key concepts at the heart of Leading With Grit & Grace: that leaning on one strength to the neglect of its opposite can create a stylistic imbalance that can torpedo a leader’s effectiveness, impact and ability to truly serve.

What about you?

Have you ever acted with ‘idiot compassion’ as a leader?

What was your core intention?  Did the result match the intention?

What form(s) of grit would have strengthened your actions, so that your core intention might have been been fulfilled?

How can you use this insight to fortify your effectiveness in a situation you’re currently facing?