Leadership decisions: When to Fire Someone

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Holz
  • 39th Maintenance Squadron commander
Being a squadron commander has been an eye-opening experience and I'm thankful for the opportunity.  I've gotten the chance to lead some of the Air Force's best Airmen at the edge of the frontier.  But what should you do as a leader when you're not leading the best Airmen and your organization's performance is suffering?  As a leader, how do you arrive at the decision that one of your Airmen isn't contributing to your unit's mission?

As a squadron commander, I've had to ask myself these questions more than once.  Sometimes I think coming to the decision to remove someone from their position is more difficult for a leader than the act of actually firing them, especially when the individuals are filling critical positions within your organization.  Retired Maj. Gen. Perry M. Smith's book, "Rules & Tools for Leaders:  A Down-to-Earth Guide to Effective Managing," was one of the books I consulted when I had to remove two individuals from my squadron.  Smith discusses a supervisor's responsibility to counsel an individual whose performance is substandard, as well as the importance on how to counsel the individual to improve their performance.  He also discusses strategies on how to conduct the counseling session.  Smith's book also discusses the business of firing an individual and even has a very helpful checklist of what to cover when telling a subordinate that they're being fired.

However, I feel that the book has one omission in it.  It never really discusses as a leader, how you're supposed to come to the decision that will affect your organization and the individual in question.  In my case, I had doubts in my mind that these individuals were helping the unit, but I was troubled by the severity of the decision.  I knew something wasn't working in the squadron, but I wasn't ready to make the leap on what I really needed to do.  Thankfully, I had a mentor that helped me through the situation.  He helped to reinforce two things that I had already learned about leadership since taking command and he taught me a third. 

First, if it doesn't feel right in your gut then it probably isn't even if you can't quote an Air Force Instruction on why it's not right.  Second, your first instinct on why it isn't right or what's causing the problem is usually correct.  Finally, picture your organization after the issue in question is fixed.  If your gut tells you that one or more individuals are causing the problem and they are not part of the solution to get to your envisioned end state, then they need to be removed.  The last point is the most critical.  The first two points will come almost naturally to you, but the last is where a leader exercises their responsibility to their organization.

Removing someone from your organization should never be taken lightly.  I would encourage you to seek the advice of a mentor when you're faced with the scenario.  They can help you to envision whether an individual is part of the solution or not, because your judgment may be clouded since you may work with the person in question every day.  My advice will not make the task of firing someone easier or more palatable, but at the end of the day you'll know that you did the right thing for your organization and the Air Force.