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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

How to fire a superstar

Q: In confronting the issue of Gen. McChrystal's apparent insubordination, did President Obama have any choice but to remove him? Going forward, what can Gen. Petraeus do to overcome this dramatic shakeup and keep his troops reassured and on mission?

The consensus of senior military officers, historians, and even pundits is that President Obama made the right decision in firing General Stanley McChrystal for comments made in a Rolling Stone article. The president also did something from which anyone in management can learn - the right way to fire a wayward superstar.

Let's be clear: McChrystal is an accomplished solider who has served our nation with distinction. His problem is that he allowed one bad trait -- an outsized ego -- to get the better of him. Four-star generals, like CEOs, need to think highly of themselves but when that sense of self leads to a heightened sense of self-importance, hubris sets in. And that can be dangerous. Why else would a general ever allow a journalist to embed with him and his team and then in the reporter's presence sound off about the perceived inadequacies of their civilian commanders? Simple! Because he, like many superstars, thought he could get away with it.

When hubris prevents clear-headed leadership, it falls to the executive in charge to decide what do to next. And in my opinion the president provided a teachable moment for all managers struggling with out of control superstars.

Gather your facts. Firing a superstar requires careful documentation. McChrystal's comments in the Rolling Stone article showed a blatant disregard for the chain of command. Document patterns of behavior, too. Also McChrystal had been reprimanded last year for speaking his mind in public about the need for more troops in Afghanistan before the President had decided on a strategy.

Weigh your options. "If I lose the superstar, who will take his or her place?" is an important question to ask. This is a question that Obama undoubtedly debated with his national security team. While he settled on General David Petraeus, undoubtedly this is an interim step that will allow one or more less senior officers to prove he can handle the job. If so, this will demonstrate that most, if not all, performers are replaceable; and many times they can be replaced by even more accomplished employees.

Meet face to face. Give the superstar his day in court. Obama gave McChrystal the courtesy of hearing his side of the story. Do the same for your superstars. Typically such a face to face meeting is not just a one-time event; it will be part of a long process of coaching by the manager and perhaps by an executive coach. If no progress results, the leader must make the final decision on the status of the superstar.

Ask the big question: is the organization better off without this guy? This may be the toughest question of all. Superstars are top performers. In sales parlance they may make the numbers, but equally so, out of control superstars can inflict havoc. They can erode team morale in one of two ways. One, their behavior grates others, and two their behavior creates dissention. This makes good performers feel underappreciated; after all, why should I abide by the rules if the superstar is held unaccountable?

Accountability is imperative to effective leadership. An executive, including the president, who allows subordinates to flout the rules as a means of playing up their own self importance, is in effect ceding authority. He or she is acknowledging that I am not in charge. Undermining of such authority is typically fatal.

It is never easy to terminate anyone from any job, but when a strong leader stands up for the principles of accountability he deserves a pat on the back from everyone on the team. Time and again I have had managers tell me how many of their employees come up and thank them for getting rid of an obnoxious superstar.

The leader who does so will define his or her leadership style that sends a strong message that all of us , even four star generals and CEOs, must be held accountable for our actions.

By John Baldoni

 |  June 24, 2010; 7:18 AM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A Constitutional necessity | Next: McChrystal should just be the start


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At 500 days in office President Bush had an approval rating of 70%. Obama at 500 days in office had and approval rating of 47%. Obama is a failure and is totally incompetent.

Posted by: good_angel | June 24, 2010 2:03 PM
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Obama is an incompetent elitist whimp. He couldn't lace this warrior's boots. When did this country slip so far that a person that defends our liberty can't tell the truth without being fired? Article 88 of the UMCJ should be repealed. McCrystal was trying to get a message out to the people of the United States that they have a weakling boob for a president and he is surrounded by cheer leading socialist idiots. McCrystal is the last of the warrior generals. He is a special ops leader whose teams tracked down and killed many of the terrorist leaders in Iraq. Obama won't even say the words "radical Islamic terrorists", much less fight them. Obama would run, like the coward he and his cronies are. This is what America has come to, firing a patriot but electing an anti-American, anti-Jewish, anti-ally president that is destroying our country from within. He will not even defend our borders. He stands up for criminal illegal aliens by suing the American citizens of Arizona for voting for a law to protect themselves because Obama and his failed administration will not.

Posted by: good_angel | June 24, 2010 10:17 AM
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And what does McChrystal plan to do after leaving his post in Afghanistan? Well, he's already made the cover of Rolling Stone and his backing group have a song called "Afghanistan" apparently, but he needs to work on the lyrics. At the moment it only has one word if we are to believe the reporter. Still, the US army can put him on star search and he'll go over big, I reckon and with that Michael Jackson military outfit he could be a fashion killer.

The B side could be the instrumental "Sit and Spin", he's got a funky little hand gesture to go with it.

O.K. I resign. CB in Hamburg

Posted by: chrisbrown12 | June 24, 2010 10:14 AM
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