What You Say When You Need To Fire Someone You Like: How Lincoln Did It
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
What do you say when someone that you like just isn’t working out? Are there any rules to follow?
Politicians and clergy and leaders of non-profit organizations have to do it all the time. Business leaders have to downsize and say goodbye to employees and vendors that they’re fond of.
Breaking this kind of bad news can be terribly painful, so you need to say it right Fortunately a little-known story from the American Civil War provides some guidance about what should be said
In the fall of 1864, the North was gearing up for a presidential election. It promised to be a bitter, hard-fought, close contest, and the fortunes of Abraham Lincoln were not all that high. In fact, early in the year, everyone thought Lincoln was going down in defeat.
The stakes were high. If Lincoln lost, and his opponent General George McClellan won, the Confederacy was certain to get major concessions. Slavery would be allowed to continue in the Southern states, and the Confederacy might even be recognized as a separate nation.
Lincoln’s party was badly split. One faction, known as Radicals, was threatening to run a third-party candidate–if Lincoln kept Postmaster General Montgomery Blair in his cabinet. The Radicals hated Blair for too many reasons to go into here, but Blair was a symbol of everything that the Radicals did not like about Lincoln’s administration.
So a deal was struck. Lincoln would ask Montgomery Blair to resign. If he did, the Radicals would support Lincoln in the coming election.
On September 23, 1864 Lincoln wrote this letter to Blair.
“You have generously said to me more than once that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me, it was at my disposal. The time has come. You very well know that this proceeds from no dissatisfaction of mine personally or officially. Your uniform kindness to me has been unsurpassed by that of any friend.”
Montgomery Blair understood the reality of politics, that politics involves sometimes doing not what you personally prefer, but what is possible and necessary. He recognized that Lincoln was not following his personal feelings in the matter. Blair’s letter contained this sentence among others that expressed his own personal feelings toward Lincoln:
“I cannot take leave of you without renewing the expressions of my gratitude for the uniform kindness, which has marked your course toward me.”
The Radicals kept their promise. Opposition disappeared as if by magic, prominent Radical politicians began stumping for Lincoln, and Radical newspaper editors started running enthusiastic articles about Lincoln. And Lincoln was re-elected.
If you ever have to write such a letter–one that goes against your own personal feelings, but is necessary for your business or your career–here are five rules to follow:
One. Do not let your personal feelings of loyalty toward one person keep you from doing what is most important. Lincoln felt that he should not knowingly lose an election that would give away what had been bought at such a high cost of treasure and blood.
Two. Your words must make it manifestly clear that there is a difference between your personal feelings and your official responsibility.
Three. Do not go into details explaining your decision. The less you explain the better. As Lincoln put it, “The time has come.”
Four. Appeal to the other party’s sense of being willing to do something for you.
Five. You may not destroy the friendship if you do this right. Lincoln and Blair remained good friends as long as Lincoln lived. He understood the delicate political situation Lincoln was in. A strong friendship can withstand strong winds.
You may never have to ne tell someone that you won’t be needing them any more. But if you hold an important leadership position, chances are you will.
To do it with grace and skill will require your best forward thinking, and perhaps a backward glance in order to learn how a leader with consummate skill did it.
“This is a book to cherish and share.”—Bill Marriott, CEO, Marriott International, Inc.
“Not only does Griessman give us Lincoln quotes, but he also weaves each one into a little jewel of an essay on that particular subject.” Wayne C. Temple, renowned Lincoln scholar, Illinois State Archives
A stirring, inspirational treasury of quotations from our greatest and most admired president, the book offers rich material for interpretation, reflection, and spiritual guidance.
You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.
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