Under what circumstances should you fire a leader?

Under what circumstances should you fire a leader?

Firing a leader? That’s a tough call.

Before we look at God’s Word and circumstances under which the Lord removed leaders from their positions of influence, which is what the above question really asks, let’s look at two schools of thought that exist about letting someone go.

Option 1: Laying off or Letting Go Are NOT Options

Some believe that once a leader brings someone on staff, it’s the leader’s responsibility to nurture that individual and help him or her grow and develop, which includes helping them to overcome challenges and obstacles. Leaders who embrace this school of thought will anticipate and prepare for possible economic and financial downturns by sound financial stewardship during the good times. Believe it or not, there are companies who in their many years of existence have never fired or laid off an employee.

Victorinox, the Swiss company that produces Swiss Army Knives, has never downsized or laid off a single employee in its 130 years of existence. To avoid letting people go, the company sets aside profits during boom periods to supplement recessionary periods, as well as temporarily contracting employees to other companies as outsourced labor during recessions.

Victorinox doesn’t look at employees as mere laborers who exist to benefit the bottom line of the organization. Here is what their CEO says:

“We consider our employees as one big family, and we have always tried to apply a strategy that allows us to overcome normal economic cycles.”

The sound stewardship displayed by Victorinox’s leadership echoes Proverbs 6:6-8 in which the Lord tells us to pay attention to the small ant and the way it stores its provisions in summer (the good times), knowing that the winter (tough times) is coming:

“Go to the ant, you sluggard;

    consider its ways and be wise!

It has no commander,

    no overseer or ruler,

yet it stores its provisions in summer

    and gathers its food at harvest.” Proverbs 6:6-8

Another company that has never laid off a single employee or cut pay is none other than Southwest Airlines. Southwest CEO, Gary Kelly, credits incredible company culture for their success and says this about the employees:

“There is a lot to a culture, and it's easier to have a strong culture if you feel like you're a champion. And that's the way our employees feel.…" 

Because Southwest employees feel valued, appreciated and are empowered to do their best (which also means they are given freedom to try new things and take some risks), employees will do whatever it takes to help the leaders succeed.

Option 2: Letting Go Is a Part of Life

There are, on the other hand, leaders who believe that letting people go is simply part of organizational life—the normal way of doing business. Those leaders believe they’ve been commissioned to achieve certain results, and employees are hired to help the leader and the organization achieve those goals. When an employee is not meeting objectives or goals, not fully getting behind the mission or vision of the leader, then it’s only natural to let that employee go and bring someone on who has a higher capacity and is more willing to embrace the mission.

Leaders in this camp tend to believe that most important things to protect and cultivate is the organization and its mission. They tend to view employees as means to either help the organization succeed or as stumbling blocks preventing the organization from reaching its full potential.

Scripture does not directly address the topic of laying off or firing employees. It does, however, address the importance of working with excellence, respecting authority, and treating workers fairly and honestly. The New Testament recounts Jesus’ parables about faithful and unfaithful servants and the response of the master to those who were faithful and to those who squandered their opportunity.

What about the Leader?

Within the pages of Scripture are many direct examples of leaders who were entrusted with leadership and influence and reasons why they were removed from their positions of authority by God.

God reminds us that influence over others is a great responsibility, and leaders should not take it lightly.

Influence over others is a great responsibility, and leaders should not take it lightly.

In James 3:1 we are told that “not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

In Luke 12:48 the Scripture says: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Proverbs 29:2 illustrates what happens when a just person rules (serves in a position of authority) and the impact those who are unjust have on the people they lead: “With good men in authority, the people rejoice; but with the wicked in power, they groan” (TLB).

Even though space doesn’t permit me to cover every deficient leader in the Bible and what caused them to be removed from the position of leadership, here are two examples:

Eli: Misguided Loyalty  

Eli was a priest and a judge in Israel, and Eli’s family line was appointed to minister before the Lord for generations to come.

Eli was also a father of two sons to whom he gave the responsibility of ministering in the house of the Lord. In chapter 2 of 1 Samuel we read that: “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the Lord.” Instead of following the Lord’s instructions about burnt offerings, Eli’s sons greedily indulged on the fat of the sacrificed animals that had been set aside for the Lord.

Eli’s indulgent affection toward his sons allowed him to ignore their evil behavior until the people’s complaints forced him to act. Eli’s soft rebuke of “Don't do that anymore, boys” came far too late. By then, the Lord was so fed up with Eli’s sons and Eli himself that He delivered his own rebuke to Eli through the young, up-and-coming prophet, Samuel:

“At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:12-13, emphasis added).

Leaders build strong bonds and loyalties to certain employees, business partners, vendors and even customers. Loyalty is a great trait and much needed, but when it is misplaced, it can also become an obstacle.

Loyalty is a great trait, but when it is misplaced, it becomes an obstacle.

Eli was removed from his position of leadership because he showed loyalty to his sons above doing what was right in God’s eyes.

Saul: Pride, Fear of People, Justifying the Wrong

Proverbs 16:18 tells us, “Pride goes before destruction.…”

Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.…”

Pride, fearing men rather than God and trying to manipulate and justify wrong actions were reasons why Saul was removed from his role as a leader over the people of Israel.

In 1 Samuel 15, the prophet Samuel gave King Saul special instructions regarding the Amalekites. Saul was told to destroy the Amalekites and everything belonging to them. No exceptions. But, because of the pressure exerted by his own soldiers, Saul and his army spared the “best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good” (1 Samuel 15:9).

When confronted by Samuel, Saul first tried to justify his actions by saying they spared the best of the best to offer it to the Lord. When this justification (although sounding very spiritual) did not work, he finally confessed that the fear of the people and what they would think of him prevented him from obeying God’s instructions. In his own words, found in 1 Samuel 15:24, Saul replied: “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them.”

The Lord removed Saul’s influence and, eventually, his throne and entrusted the responsibility to lead the nation to David.

Firing a leader is never easy, and it should not be taken lightly.

While we see examples in God’s Word of leaders being removed from their positions, we also see times when God restored and forgave leaders who made some pretty major mistakes, because they genuinely repented and turned from their sinful ways.

While there are some obvious actions that would warrant removing a leader from his/her position, such as stealing/mishandling financial resources, infidelity, pornography and emotional or verbal abuse of employees, there are also other less obvious behaviors and attitudes that, unless corrected, would justify letting a leader go.

Grace and forgiveness should always be part of the process, and depending on the reason for firing, restoration of relationships should be the ultimate goal.

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