Don’t Hang On to Bad Employees Too Long

09 Jun


Abraham Lincoln kept the non-aggressive General George McClellan far too long before firing him.  Here is just a sampling of people who thought this was the case:

The Harvard Business Review article by Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan skewered Lincoln and other people-oriented leaders like him for being too slow to act on the wrong employees:

“…Goodwin also concluded that ‘Lincoln’s greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them.’ This seemed to color his judgment, and delay corrective action by giving people too many chances to turn things around. Nowhere is this more evident than in the disastrous example of how Lincoln managed George McClellan, his general in the early stages of the Civil War.”

And if you’ve ever worked in your life, you have likely watched in agony as your own manager hemmed and hawed over firing one of your very deserving co-workers:  “Why doesn’t she just get rid of him?!”

But Lincoln would be the first to tell you that it’s just not that easy for managers.  When you remove a person from an organization, you’re not just getting rid of a problem; you could be creating a whole new variety of issues.

With regard to McClellan, Lincoln had to be dying on the inside to get rid of him, yet he had to make sure that terminating the reluctant general wasn’t going to cause more damage to his own cause than to the Confederacy.  Consider this:

  1. Lincoln still wasn’t sure of himself as Commander-In-Chief, and he wasn’t getting expert advice. His first Secretary of War turned out to be a disgraced politician (Simon Cameron). His second, though very capable, was a trial attorney (Edwin Stanton). He was also relying on an old retired general from the Mexican War (Winfield Scott). Lincoln tried to prop up his knowledge with books and research (see my post Continually Educate Yourself), but this knowledge could not come fast enough to have been used to make a decision on McClellan.
  2. McClellan’s men loved him.  (He followed, albeit unknowingly, Lincoln’s management maxim of giving your employees everything you can.)
  3. McClellan was in charge of the largest and most vital part of the Union Army, and he had built and prepared that unit from virtually nothing.
  4. Lincoln had few, dismal choices who could replace McClellan.  This was not a job you could float on Monster.Com for a few months before filling.  The new guy had to be ready to step in the moment Lincoln canned McClellan.  Ulysses S. Grant was not yet known for being a success, and was still number two or three in the smaller, less prominent Army of the West.
  5. It could be a political bomb.  McClellan was a Democrat with lots of friends in Congress.  In fact, he was so popular that he ended up getting the nomination to run against Lincoln in 1864.
  6. Lincoln still had hope that McClellan could do the job.  During McClellan’s tenure, nobody was seemingly more qualified to run the Army of the Potomac.  It was not until the disastrous Peninsula Campaign into Virginia in 1862 that Lincoln had begun to lose faith in Little Mac.  Even during the Battle of Antietam soon afterward, McClellan proved that he could fight and win against Robert E. Lee.  Of course, the major problem, as always with him, is that he did not chase after Lee, losing the chance to crush him and win the war.

Lincoln had to wrap his head around these problems before he could make the move, and he had to do it under severe pressure.  The South was winning far too many battles.  His cabinet members were practically beside themselves in wanting McClellan’s head on a platter.  Republicans were practically screaming.  Democrats were eerily silent.

Two months after Antietam, Lincoln finally decided to risk the soldiers turning on him with a relatively unproven general, weather the political storm, bite the bullet, and fire the guy.

He also resolved never to wait too long to fire a general again.  Within the following year, he hired three more.

The Results?

  • The South gained hope and strength from escaping a number of potential war-ending battles that the Union Army failed to engage in.
  • By hanging on to McClellan too long, Lincoln MAY HAVE unknowingly extended the Civil War.
  • If the war had been ended earlier, there may not have been a need to free slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.  (So it may have worked out for the best anyway.)

The Lesson?

Live and learn.  Lincoln was not a perfect man, but he did have management principles that he stuck to.  One of those was giving people the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes it worked out; sometimes it didn’t.  The Harvard Business Review was right in saying that you can overdo your people skills to your detriment.  However, if you have the ability to learn from your mistakes (see my post on that), you can overcome this weakness as Lincoln did.


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