“Our chief want in life is somebody who can make us do what we can.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

A water bearer in India had two pots attached to each end of a pole. He would sling the pole over his shoulders to carry water from the stream to his house every day. One of the pots was cracked and leaked water. The other one was perfect. One day the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer about its shame and apologized for dripping water while the other pot never lost a drop. The water bearer replied to the pot, “Yes, you are cracked and do not carry water as well your brother pot. But you have an ability that he does not have. Did you notice there were flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw and took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path and every day while we walk back from the stream you have watered them.”

Strong leaders know that we’re all cracked pots. Perfect people are in very short supply! In fact, that may be just as well: As Abraham Lincoln once said, “It has been my experience that men who have no vices have very few virtues.”

Such human traits can, however, cause problems, especially in the workplace. And when performance problems arise, they need to be confronted. Like porcupines in love, such discussions are painful for both parties. That’s often why managers avoid them. Leaders, however, know that poor performance is like a highly contagious disease. The longer it goes unchecked, the more everyone suffers. As Publius Syrus said, “He harms the good who spares the bad.” Here is what some of today’s experts have to say about the subject:

  • “Keeping poor performers means that development opportunities for promising employees get blocked, so those subordinates don’t get developed, productivity and morale fall, good performers leave the company, the company attracts fewer ‘A’ players, and the whole miserable cycle keeps turning… Refusing to deal with underperformers not only makes your best employees unhappy, but it also makes them think the company is run by bozos… Successful companies deal with underperformers systematically, every day; unsuccessful companies don’t.” — Geoffrey Colvin, “Make Sure You Chop the Dead Wood,” Fortune
  • “I feel there is no greater disrespect you can do to a person than to let them hang out in a job where they are not respected by their peers, not viewed as successful, and probably losing their self-esteem. To do that under the guise of respect for people is, to me, ridiculous.” — Debra Dunn, senior executive Hewlett-Packard
  • “Easing someone’s path does not mean simply providing the path of least resistance. Sometimes the best way to help people is to hold them responsible; accepting no excuses can sometimes be the best kind of aid we can offer.” — William Bennett, The Moral Compass

In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven B. Sample, President of the University Of Southern California explains that leaders sometimes need to adopt a hands-on approach to inspire their teams:

“If a would-be leader wants glamor, he should try acting in the movies. However, if he in fact wants to make a consequential impact on a cause or an organization, he needs to roll up his sleeves and be prepared to perform a series of grungy chores which are putatively beneath him, and for which he’ll never receive recognition or credit, but by virtue of which his lieutenants will be inspired and enabled to achieve great things.”

So much of what a manager does makes it difficult for people to get their work done. “I am from head office and I am here to help you,” sends the snicker meter over the red line in many organizations. Too often managers have made it harder for people on the front lines to get their job done. Strong coaches start by building agreement or buy-in to roles and goals. Then they flip things around and serve their teams and organizations.

At a technical services company a manager declared a series of “junk days” for the technicians in the field. He pulled together a group of internal and external suppliers of the equipment the technicians were using and took them out on tour. He invited technicians to attend the meeting in a local hotel room and bring out all their defective equipment along with their work-around strategies. The internal and external suppliers were told that they were there only to listen and learn. They were not to rationalize, defend, excuse, or explain. They were to speak only with questions for clarity. As the tour moved from city to city, the manager and the suppliers kept careful notes on the trends emerging and the many innovative solutions they encountered. At the end of the tour, decisions were made, new prototypes developed, and procedures changed. They then went back out on tour to get reactions and make further modifications. The result was a surge in morale, productivity, and effectiveness of the technicians.