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Is this the ultimate test of our leadership ability?

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Here’s a controversial test of our leadership ability: we’re only as good as our worst performing team member.

It feels horribly uncomfortable to consider. I hate the idea. But… I think it might be true. Here’s why…

Because, if we have a chronically underperforming team member, it means one or perhaps all of the following must be true:

  1. We made a recruitment mistake in appointing someone who’s a poor fit to the role
  2. We’ve failed to upskill, enable and/or engage them into higher performance
  3. We’ve allowed them to stay in the role, despite their underperformance

I can still feel part of me (probably my ego) resisting the idea.

And, if you’re anything like me, your mind will jump to explanations (excuses?) such as:

  • It’s really hard in [insert country] to sack people
  • I lack the authority to sack or performance manage people
  • I inherited the person from someone else
  • HR/my boss/whoever isn’t giving me enough support

Sometimes there will be legitimate reasons when the best leader can’t address a performance issue.

But I think that the occasions when this is true are vanishingly rare compared to the occasions when we lean on this reasoning as an excuse.

And I’m familiar with these excuses: I’ve used them many times to help me feel better about my failures to address underperformance issues. It’s only as I grow and move towards total responsibility that I can see these were just clever stories that I told myself.

Does that mean we’re bad managers when we struggle with an underperformer? No, not at all. Dealing with underperformance is one of the most difficult and painful aspects of management.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep learning, practicing and trying to be better leaders. Effectively (but compassionately) dealing with underperformers is something that separates the best leaders from normal ones.

Plus, whether it’s a fair test or not, it’s a useful lens through which we can candidly assess our own performance in managing an underperformer. It can help keep us honest as to how we might be contributing to the situation.

I expect (and hope) this post will elicit some strong responses. I’d love to hear them 😀!