It was late at night as I sat in the dimly-lit Wardroom of the Guided Missile Destroyer after I had just finished my 5-hour watch in the Pilot House. I felt horrible. I failed. I thought I could turn his attitude and performance around. I did everything I could to help an extraordinarily talented sailor under my command. It wasn’t enough.
Earlier that day, the young Fire Controlman was sentenced to 3 days in the Brig (military jail) where he would only be given bread and water as sustenance. A stiff penalty for deliberately not showing up before the ship pulled out of port to conduct Naval Gunfire Support (NGFS) qualifications off the coast of Southern California. While harsh, the punishment was apropos, as this Sailor was our most proficient operator of the Mark-34 Gun Weapon System, the system vital to us attaining our mission-critical NGFS qualification. Shortly after serving his sentence in the Brig, he was discharged from the Navy.
I replayed the past 18 months. What could I have done differently? When should I have fired him? How did I allow myself to continue to rely on someone whose performance was clearly deteriorating? How can I avoid this in the future?
When I checked aboard my ship as a young Ensign, he quickly stood out as my most talented sailor – smart, motivated, significant natural leadership ability. He could write his ticket in the Navy, every ‘good deal’ the Navy offered would be available to him. Yet, about a year into my tour, his performance began to slip. It started with small things: failing to properly document routine maintenance checks or not maintaining a clean and tidy living space. My Chief and I thought we caught it early and began to work with him.
I took several approaches. I first sought to understand if there was some extenuating circumstance in his life or on the ship that was affecting his performance. He assured me there wasn’t. I then gave him more responsibility, hoping my vote of confidence in his potential would motivate him to turn his performance around. When that proved unsuccessful, I sat him down and counseled him with very specific actions he needed to take to get back to his top performer rating. This also had little impact. He was a locomotive without brakes snaking down a treacherous slope.
As I sat, hypnotized by the gentle sway of the 512-foot Destroyer in open ocean, my Commanding Officer walked into the Wardroom. Like me, he enjoyed a late-night bowl of cereal while at sea. Although he was a brilliant leader of women and men, anyone could have perceived that I was dejected. We spoke about the events of the day and how I felt about them. That’s when he passed down to me the answer to the biggest question I was grappling with: when do I fire someone?
“As soon as the amount of time and emotional energy you devote to one person on your team impacts your ability to effectively lead the rest of your team, you have to let that person go.”
It is simple. It is unemotional. As a leader, you have a responsibility to lead everyone on your team. At times, some of your team members will require more of your effort and support, that’s completely normal and acceptable. The issue arises when you begin to wane in your commitment and leadership to the rest of your team because you have over-indexed on supporting an individual.
Make no mistake, this sailor should have been fired, and earlier than it occurred. I, like many leaders, take pride in helping develop my team members, especially the so-called ‘reclamation project’. I allowed my ego to get in my way and blind me to the broader responsibility I had to the rest of my team and the overall mission of preparing my ship for deployment. He was unquestionably unreliable and I acquiesced, allowing him to remain in this key position, putting the mission and the entire ship of 350 sailors at risk. So “saving” my Fire Controlman could cost the survival of everyone on the ship. What if he had decided to not show up during a real emergency?
If you find yourself in a similar situation, emotionally detach and ask yourself the simple question: Is the time I’m spending on this one person impacting my ability to effectively lead the rest of my team?