A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a young, high-potential leader named Jerome. Jerome had a dilemma. He needed to fire someone. 40 years older than him. Over the phone. On a different continent. And he needed it to go well. #nofun #noteasy This was not a situation where someone could simply be escorted to the door and have their personal effects mailed to them. The transition needed to go smoothly to protect the company’s interests and relationships. This meant the person being fired, Lowry, assisting with transitions between himself, his replacement, and clients.
I asked Jerome to do something before he made the call. I asked him to take a full five minutes – as in actually do it for 300 seconds – to vividly imagine what it would be like to be Lowry on the other end of the phone. What would it feel like to get this call? What would Lowry be worried about? What would this mean for him and his family? How would it feel to be fired from across the ocean by someone so much younger than him? How might all of this impact Lowry’s heart, ego, and identity? Jerome followed my request and did the exercise before he called.
A few days later, I got an update from Jerome. He told me that the call with Lowry had gone very well, much better than he had expected it would. Not only had they ended the discussion positively but it looked like a healthy transition process would take place.
Weeks later, Jerome found himself across the ocean and physically in the presence of Lowry. They were working together on final transition details. And then Lowry did something unexpected. He invited Jerome to hang out with him and his wife on their boat.
That's right, the guy being fired invited the guy firing him to hang out on the guy-being-fired's boat.
Jerome explained what happened in this way:
"When I went through the empathy exercise, the question I tried to answer was 'How would I want to make my exit?' I tried to feel my way through the various paths I could take and the best way to make him feel good throughout the process. I landed on making it a retirement/good-bye tour. I put myself in his shoes. It was a way for him to save face and go out on a high note with everyone involved-- including me. He truly had fun with me the week I was there. This also put us in the best position with the customers as there was no awkward 'What happened with Lowry?' "
Now don't mistake this as a story about a smart strategy. That's not where the magic lives. The magic lives in the power of empathy and Jerome's willingness to empathize. Lowry was being let go because he needed to be let go. This was termination due to a lack of performance. Despite the pain that Lowry had caused with his under performance, Jerome was willing to pause to personally feel Lowry’s pain. The net result was not merely the strategy Jerome chose, but also the tone and manner in which he handled the entire situation. Everyone involved, including Jerome himself, felt the positive impact of Jerome’s willingness to empathize with Lowry.
A few months after this story happened, I asked Jerome about the financial impact of his empathy. Jerome shared that Lowry's smooth exist from the business had protected $3 million in annual revenue for his company. The power of empathy had extended tangibly from Jerome's heart to his bottom line.
I Dare You to Try
It is difficult to overestimate the value of empathy in leadership. Few leaders exercise it well because their positional power rarely requires them to do so. They can decry edicts and make demands without having to feel what others are experiencing. Their power invites them to ignore empathy, one of the greatest leadership weapons at their disposal.
Leaders who make genuine empathy a regular part of their emotional lives win. Their sincere interest in others sets them apart from less-developed leaders. The connection forged with others through empathy builds healthy relationships even in (maybe especially in) the toughest of circumstances. And sometimes it even gets you invited on a boat trip.
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