IN THE MID-1970S, Orville Sweet was CEO of national trade association. As any CEO will tell you, one of his or her unenviable tasks is having to fire a close friend and colleague. Such was the case for Orville that year. For our purposes, details of the firing aren’t nearly as important as what happened a few days after.
Orville got a distressing call from the wife of the man he’d let go. Apparently, he wasn’t coping very well. In fact, she was concerned he was suicidal. Orville asked her to put him on the phone. The man admitted to Orville he was having a hard time, but claimed he’d pull it together. Orville could hear the stress in his voice. He knew both the man and his wife well enough to understand the gravity of the situation. Instinctively, Orville made a suggestion that surprised the man (and perhaps himself), “Well, why don’t you come back?”
“Really? You’re hiring me back?”
“Sure,” Orville reassured him. “We haven’t filled the position, and your office is still empty.”
“Well, of course I will! Thanks, Orville. I’ll be there first thing in the morning.”
His return, of course, confused the others in the office. But out of respect, Orville told them only that he was coming back to his old job. He gave them no explanation, and no information about his emotional state or the suicidal suspicion his wife was harboring.
After three or four uneventful weeks, the man came to see Orville in his office. “Orville, I really want to thank you for letting me come back. I guess I really wasn’t ready to go. Or maybe I just wanted to leave on my own terms. Either way, I’m ready now. I’ll have my office cleared out by this afternoon.” He shook Orville’s hand, and walked out. True to his word, he packed up his things, and left the office for the second time— but this time with his head held high. Whatever reasons had led to him losing his job were certainly still valid. He knew that. The extra time Orville afforded him simply allowed him to accept it.
Orville’s decision to bring a terminated employee back to the office must violate the good senses of every professional human resources manager today, and probably in the 1970s as well. Conventional wisdom would suggest keeping someone like that as far away from the office as possible. Or a compassionate boss might send him to counseling, but at least alert corporate security in case something happened.
Is it possible those more orthodox reactions could have worked out just as well? Perhaps. But what’s certain is that Orville’s unconventional solution saved the man’s dignity, and quite possibly his life.
Orville’s story circulated among his colleagues. To some it offered an interesting alternative for handling a tricky personnel issue. To others it was just a heartwarming story. But to Rodger Wasson, it meant much more.
Rodger was the executive vice president of a related trade association in a neighboring state at the time. He came to know Orville years later when they both worked at the same organization. Rodger and Orville were both recruited to interview for the CEO position. Orville got the job. But in another unconventional move, he immediately offered a top position to Rodger and every other finalist who had interviewed for the CEO spot! What better way to quickly identify top talent for his leadership team? Rodger Wasson was the only one who accepted the offer.
So Rodger knew there was an unusual brilliance to Orville Sweet. When he heard Orville’s firing and rehiring story, he knew there must be an underlying wisdom to it. And he found it. Ever since Rodger began his working career, he studied everything he could about management. He read all the great leadership books. He took all the right courses. He knew the “right answer” to just about every management challenge. What Orville’s story gave Rodger was permission to ignore all that. It gave him permission to follow his instincts—to do something unconventional when the situation warranted. After all, he was hired to use his judgment and make good decisions. Not to blindly enforce the policy manual. Orville knew that man and his situation better than anyone. His judgment was exactly what was needed at that moment. And he needed to trust it.
It was a lesson Rodger never forgot, and he’s put it to use on many occasions over the course of his career. Now that you’ve heard it, hopefully you will too.
You can find out more about Rodger at www.idea-farming.com.
[You can find this and 100 other leadership lesson in my book, Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. Sign up for my newsletter below to get a story a week delivered to your inbox.]