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Fellows Spotlight
Compassionate Leadership
January 25, 2021

With COVID-19 affecting the personnel of many businesses and organizations, Cohort VIII Fellow Tony Au of First Hawaiian Bank shares his thoughts on weaving compassionate leadership into one of the many difficult tasks that leaders face - firing someone.

Photo of hands during a business meeting

Contributed by: Tony Au, Cohort VIII

In this new year, people continue to lose loved ones, there is uncertainty on how and when we will receive the vaccine, and many are still struggling just to make ends meet. For some, these unprecedented distractions can lead to underperformance in their jobs, leaving their teammates to carry an even heavier load. 

In one of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul Conversations, she spoke with Jeff Weiner, executive chairman of LinkedIn on compassionate leadership. At the time, he was rated the top CEO with a 100% approval rating through an anonymous employee survey by Glassdoor. As they discussed compassionate leadership, she asked a simple but difficult question: How does he fire someone with compassion? In today’s environment, this conversation truly resonated with me. As a leader, how do you speak to your team member about underperformance knowing their personal challenges, but also knowing that the rest of the team is struggling because of their underperformance?

Firing someone is something many of us have done, or will have to do, and it is never easy. I have walked away from these difficult conversations feeling horrible about myself, questioning if I did the right thing, wondering what my team will think of me, how that person is feeling, and what will they tell their family when they get home. After all, we are affecting a person’s identity, livelihood, and the emotions of everyone around them. I personally thought that firing someone was the furthest thing from compassion and was curious on Jeff Weiner's approach, especially given these challenging times.

When he explained how he transitions someone with compassion, he used a baseball example of not leaving the pitcher in the game too long. Your star player is on the mound, his arm is tiring, his confidence and performance is dropping, and the momentum is shifting. You, as the manager, walk out to him and ask, “How are you doing?” and he says “I’m fine, I got this.” Never will you hear the pitcher say, “Take me out.” The most compassionate thing we can do as a leader is give them time to get better and support them as much as possible, but if that time comes, we need to take them aside, say it’s not working, and work on a transition to a better fit. The least compassionate thing we can do is to avoid that difficult conversation and leave the person in that role. Over time, they’ll lose more confidence, your ability to lead is compromised, teammates carry a heavier load, morale declines even more, and worst of all, everyone takes it all home to their families.

This story of compassionate leadership is not limited to the difficult conversations we have when firing someone, especially given the complexities of today’s world. Conversations about the sustainability of your organization, conflicting interests, the political divisiveness shown on Capitol Hill, climate change, housing, and homelessness are all difficult. The courage to have these difficult conversations, come to an understanding, and look to do what’s right is truly leading with compassion.

Finally, Weiner also mentioned a life-changing moment for him was when he decided to not define his success through the traditional measures, but by defining success through our compassion and our impact on others.