Romney, Firing, Leadership, and Ethics Bob’s Lament

Yes, yes, firing people is one thing Donald Trump does well too. Shut up.

Ethics Bob Stone sent in a comment late last night that I replied to, but that I think deserves more discussion, on several points. Responding to my Ethics Hero designation for Ron Paul for coming to his adversary’s defense over Romney’s now infamous remark about firing people, Bob wrote:

“…I think Romney’s “I like to fire people”–even taken IN context–displays an inner heartlessness. I know about creative destruction, and I myself have taken actions to lay off people, and even fired a couple face-to-face. I did what needed to be done. No apologies.

“But did I like it? I HATED it.

“Romney’s comment seems of a kind with his strapping the family dog on his car roof for a 500-mi trip, or his advocacy of breaking up families to deport the parent or child who’s illegal. Gingrich was right.”

There are several issues here, some minor. Gingrich, in fact, didn’t jump on Romney’s statement, despite attacking him on similar grounds based on his Bain activities. Newt said the criticism was unfair and that the statement was taken out of context, but spared himself an Ethics Hero by still deriding the statement as clumsy, saying, “In debate, do you really want someone who is that clumsy?” (Newt still believes this a debate competition.) Also, Romney did not say that he likes to fire people. Here is the whole statement:

“I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.’ ”

It’s pretty clear, don’t you think? “I like being able to fire people” may be a red flag to teachers unions and other public employees who think that a job should be theirs for life whether they can do the tasks required well or not, but to people of normal fairness, logic and common sense with a respect for personal choice, Romney’s statement is reasonable, and not even especially clumsy. I heard a reporter ask Romney, “Do your regret your statement about firing people given the way it has been interpreted by some commentators?” Isn’t that rich? Does he regret telling the truth and making a straightforward statement because dishonest, unscrupulous  people (I don’t mean Bob) distorted it to make him look bad? Mitt tap=danced through a non-answer, but what he should have said was, “No, I regret that we have to try to talk to the American people through a media that distorts what we say rather than reporting it.”

Actually, that’s what Newt would have said.

The larger issue raised by Bob, however, is whether “heart” is a key leadership quality or qualification. I don’t believe it is. The ethics mix for leaders is very different than for the rest of us. Leaders need candor, honesty, accountability, responsibility, courage, prudence, judgment, respect for others, respect for process, trustworthiness, some measure of humility, and especially competence. Kindness, sympathy and empathy are way down the list, and in many cases, are affirmative impediments to effective leadership on a national level. Obvious examples are a leader’s difficult task of balancing interests of individuals with the needs of the nation. A President who learns that, no question about it, government benefits for the poor have to be reduced of the country goes the way of Greece and yet says, “I understand the numbers, but I just can’t find it in my heart to do that to those people! I just can’t!” is a nice guy, but a lousy leader. Presidents from Reagan to Obama have refused to fire obviously incompetent Cabinet officials because they don’t like firing people, even people who should be fired, and people who are hurting the nation by remaining in office. I am no fan of Bill Clinton, but in one respect (many, actually), he had the soul of a leader—by all accounts, once he felt you were of no value, you were out. He was ruthless. In certain situations, good leaders have to be ruthless. Leaders with “heart” can’t make a dispassionate decision about sending in the troops, or dropping the atom bomb, or making tough budget cuts. Romney didn’t say he liked firing people, but I suspect that he doesn’t mind the task as much as Bob does, or Obama, or either Bush. That’s a good thing. Firing people who deserve to be fired is part of leadership, and those who HATE it, like Bob, are less likely to do it.

Bob’s other two knocks on Romney, the dog-on-the-roof story and his views on illegals with citizen family members have been discussed here at other times. But on the matter of firing people, Mitt has exactly the right mindset for an effective leader. I’d rather have Ethics Bob as a friend, an advisor, an ethicist and a teacher, but when it comes to clearing out the deadwood, and in the government there is plenty of that, give me someone who likes the job.

11 thoughts on “Romney, Firing, Leadership, and Ethics Bob’s Lament

  1. We might be talking semantics here, but what got people’s attention was the word “fire”. What Romney was talking about was not actually firing someone. It was changing service providers, which most everyone can relate to, and not take much issue with. But when you use the word “fire” it takes on a completely different connotation. I’ve had to fire as many as 16 people in a single year, all of whom were direct reports. I hated every single one. What I learned from that experience was that the call them in the office and let them go on the spot firing was not always the best way to make a change. I like to think of myself as having a heart, and what happened to these people and their families was of some concern to me, but not as much as my own. I quickly learned to what I now call “force people out”. The promise of a good recommendation, the honest “do you really want to continue working here”? Or simply holding them to the strictest letter of the law was usually a better way to end it, than calling them in and uttering the words.

    I think your analysis of leadership qualities is good, but heart probably has a place in a larger category. The key to leadership is figuring out the best way to achieve your objective, with as little expense (financial personal, reputation loss etc) as possible. Romney’s choice of words, while maybe not all that bad, do shed a light on how he thinks and feels. “Like to be able to fire, versus like to keep options open? In the end, who actually fires service providers? If you’re unhappy, you find someone else. Is that really firing them? At what point to you question ones continued poor choice of words?

    • Great point. As Fred’s comment above suggests, this is a bit of a communication issue. Lawyers talk about “firing clients”, which is odd, because the client is the employer. In many settings, “fire” has come to mean “changing horses”, “rejecting” or dumping—I have heard women say they are going to “fire” their boyfriend. I’ve been fired several times—it’s one reason I set up my own business—and I once had to fire over 90 employees on a single day. I DON’T like it, for the record.

  2. There is an illusion here. I speak about the Romney quote on firing your insurance companies. When patients might be in a position to “fire” their insurance companies, they may be least able to objectively analyze the issues: when they are really sick. Patients who are being admitted to a hospital -the situation that results in the most expensive medical care regardless of your insurance- are often in a condition that precludes focusing on anything but getting relief from pain, trouble breathing, etc. So you often cannot fire the insurance company at the time that the patient is most vulnerable.

    And that doesn’t even address another crucial issue informed citizens selecting their healthcare insurance. But that can wait for another discussion.

  3. Layoffs are a cost cutting measure. There is nothing wrong with cutting costs as long as all debt obligations are met and profits increase.

    I often read from environmentalists and conservationists that we need to conserve resources. Why should labor be any more exempt than electricity or gasoline?

    If businesses cut back on electricity use, that reduces the amount of revenue that electric companies receive. If enough businesses conserve enough electricity, the electric company loses money. And if the electric company loses too much money, it goes bankrupt, with the predictable layoff of employees.

    So if we want to keep as many people employed as possible, should not businesses and consumers use as much electricity as they can afford?

  4. I”m glad you like me as a friend, teacher, and ethicist, and as your teacher I tell you that heart is important in a leader. Roger’s right on that score, although I’d go a lot further. A great leader sees his or her followers as human, with human feelings. When he has to fire people he does it with the understanding that it’ll have devastating consequences on many of them.

    By the way, a credential of mine: I structured, advocated, and oversaw a federal effort to reduce headcount by over 500,000 in 1993-1998. Earlier at the Pentagon I managed a program that forced government workers to become more efficient of have their work contracted out. So don’t tell me that empathetic leaders can’t fire people. They just don’t like doing it.

    • 500,000?? NOW I just know you SECRETLY liked it.

      I think there’s a critical difference between liking, not liking, hating and not feeling one way or the other. Did you really hate doing it, or not like it? Because, as you know, people don’t usually do what they hate willingly or well, though unusually responsible people can.

      Before, you said you HATED it. I don’t believe a good leader can hate key tasks. Earl Weaver said he retired as a manager when he found that it hurt too much to tell a player he was being cut, that he was through. He used to like being a successful manager more than he disliked having to hurt people to do it. When that flips, you can’t function. Obviously when you had to fire all those people, you didn’t LIKE it, but you liked doing the job that had to be done more.

      Anyone who actively LIKES firing people (which Romney didn’t say, remember) is sick. But the less it bothers you, the more independent your judgement is. Not liking a necessary task and caring strongly about the interests of others contrary to your duties is a conflict….as you know. And conflicts get in the way.

      How about that, Teach?

      • Anyone who actively LIKES firing people (which Romney didn’t say, remember) is sick.

        Is it any sicker than liking to cancel subscriptions to magazines, or liking to cancel an Internet provider service?

  5. You make some good points, Sonny.

    I knew the 500,000 cut was the right thing to do. I didn’t really hate it because i knew it was necessary, but I fought successfully for a buyout program that would lessen the pain. BTW, we reduced by 500,000, mostly by attrition and incentive–only a few thousand layoffs.

    At the Pentagon where it was more personal I found it difficult.

    But I’d never say I liked it. What never? No, never!

  6. I “fired” my insurance agent and I did like the fact that I could do it (if you look at Romney’s quote, that is exactly what he says). A friend of mine was hit by another driver and they did nothing to help him. He pretty much had to contact the insurance company directly to get his claim filed, which was difficult because the agent was supposed to do it. I dropped that company the next week and I was very happy that I could do it.

    My University’s health insurance company was raising our rates even more than the ridiculous increases that are normal for the health care industry. The administration went with a different company that could give us similar coverage without the outrageous markup (or massive reduction in benefits or pay for me) and I am happy that we could do that.

    AT&T internet could not provide reliable service to my house and were less than helpful when I had a problem. I like that fact that I could “fire” them and get much more reliable cable modem service.

    Now, all this had implications for the employees of those companies. For the companies I dropped, it means less revenue and possibly having to fire people , but for the companies I added, it means additional revenue and possibly more employees.

    Do my actions and the fact that I was happy about being able to drop bad service for good service make me a bad person? That seems to be the message I am hearing from the news media.

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