I faced a tough decision: my friend the “rainmaker” or the Mission?

That was the dilemma I encountered during the Great Recession, when it came to my attention that a good friend, who was also a top performer in our Seattle operation, was engaged in behavior that created a conflict of interest and who was also falsifying expense reports. The complexity of the situation increased because economic times were tough and this individual literally “moved the needle” in terms of driving results. Moreover, he ran a large, high performing group and the last thing I wanted to do was to take any action that might derail the effectiveness of this leader and his team.

His popularity and visibility made matters even more challenging. Everyone in the Seattle office knew about his conflict of interest. And, I suspected, more than a few knew he was falsifying expense reports. These behaviors clearly violated company policy.

Upon first hearing of these events, my personal friendship and desire to drive performance argued to “give this some time,” or “maybe the rumors are incorrect,” or “surely he will come around and do the right thing.” Luck would not fall my way on this one. The rumors persisted and within days my VP of Human Resources was showing me phone records and expense reports (both company property) that eliminated any doubt.

Nothing unravels the “fusion” process more quickly than a highly visible executive who clearly allows his or her self-interests to undermine the effectiveness of the Company. It’s like this senior leader is carrying around a red, neon sign that says, “you work here to make me more powerful,” or “Me first and the Mission be damned!”

Who would want to work in that organization?

I personally fired him the next day and have seldom heard from him since.

This decision evidenced my commitment to the Mission. By personally wielding the termination axe I communicated the message that “our Mission is more important than my personal friendship;” even more compelling- “our Mission is more important than a single individual, even a top performer.” When leaders evidence their commitment to the Mission, placing the needs of their organization at an equal or higher level than their own self-interests, they inspire, “fusing” their teams together around a culture of shared purpose (Fusion Leadership).

That decision cost me an important friendship and it cost our organization a top performer. Years later I wish I did not have to navigate those unfortunate circumstances. After all, he was part of our team and that is the last place any leader should have to anticipate a looming crisis. Yet, a “friendly fire” crisis can be just as dangerous. In retrospect, the costs of losing a friend and top performer were small when measured against the power of a committed workforce, one that believed in its leadership and showed up on Monday mornings eager to deliver on our Mission. A good trade indeed!