Talk about a horrible memory of the toughest reality of leadership.

Todd stopped eating, after only a few bites of his breakfast. His devastation evidenced by the pale look on his face and his steaming breakfast that sat un-touched, growing cold as the impact of my words sank in.

Only moments earlier I had said to him “I’m sorry, but I am terminating you.”

An otherwise upbeat guy, Todd seemed to drift off at that moment. Perhaps he was wondering how he would tell his wife or kids. Perhaps he was wondering how he would pay his mortgage or provide for his family.

That horrible breakfast was over 15 years ago and I now know that Todd landed on his feet, helped by our generous severance package, and later going on to succeed in another management role with another company. We corresponded recently and I delighted in learning that he still wants to keep in touch. Todd seems more resilient and capable of moving on than me. My gut still aches when I think about that morning and the awful responsibility I assumed in making the decision to terminate Todd.

At the time I did not appreciate the critical importance and necessity of wielding the axe, for the sake of the organization. At that time, I had no idea that our business would grow to employ over 2,000 people, becoming one of the ten largest companies in our industry. At that moment, I simply wanted to leave the restaurant and escape the pain I felt after devastating Todd and his family.

To this day, terminating employees, at all levels, remains the most painful and difficult experience of my career. That pain was especially acute when it involved people like Todd, who worked hard, brought a good attitude and committed themselves to the company.

A fusion leader, which I aspire to be, understands that the welfare of the organization is more important than any individual. Fusion leaders, as the phrase implies, emphasize behaviors that “fuse” their teams together around a shared Mission or purpose. Fusion leaders know that it is essential to prioritize the collective ego — meaning the health of the organization — ahead of the selfish ego — meaning their own interests.

Fusion Leaders know — or eventually learn as I did — when it’s tine to wield the axe!

As nice and well intending as he was, Todd was under-performing. His results lagged and began to stand out, when compared to other regions in our company. If I did not act, the future of our organization literally was at risk… (access the article)