Responsible Leadership and Bad News

by Wiz

in Lessons,Podcasts

During my early teen years only my mother and I were still living at home.  I was the youngest – my brothers had all left home for the service and my father . . . well, let’s say that my parents were going through some rough times in their marriage.  So essentially I was being raised in a single parent household (which was nowhere near as common in the early 1970s as it is today). 

When I was fourteen, I came home one afternoon and something was different.  You know how you get that sense that something’s not right, but you just can’t tell exactly what it is?  My mother sits me down, looks straight into my eyes and says, “Honey, I went to the doctor today . . . I have cancer.”  The image of that moment will be forever burned in my memory: the room, the look on her face, the tears we both shed, the dread that just filled my stomach.  The next three years would be filled with radiation treatments, chemotherapy and hospital visits until, in my junior year of high school, my mother finally lost her battle.

It was several years later when I began to consider just how difficult it must have been for my mother to tell me the news.  I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like as a parent to tell your child that you have a terminal illness, especially a young child.  My mother was straight up with me – about her treatments, her surgeries, her prognoses, pretty much everything.  She was always optimistic, but she didn’t try to shield me from the reality of the situation.

Any person in a position of leadership has to deal with “bad news” – it’s part of life.  Some professions (doctors, clergy, etc) have to deliver it on an all-too-frequent basis.  How a leader deals with “bad news” – both in receiving it and delivering it – has a direct impact on the entire organization.  (I worked for a boss one time who would absolutely explode when receiving bad news – many people in the organization resorted to cover-ups rather than face his wrath.)

In today’s podcast I discuss a situation that a friend of mine recently faced – receiving bad news from his employer.  When I first heard the story my immediate reaction was “What a COWARDLY way to treat your people!” (very non-judgmental, no?)  Of course the obvious question then is “OK, how would I have handled it?”  Well, never having been in that position and without knowing both sides of the story, I still like to think I would have done things differently.  Listen in . . . and let me know your comments.  (4:25)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Karen Zapp February 25, 2008 at 8:25 pm

Hi Commander Wiz!

Your blog post – responsible leaders and bad news – reminded me of an interview I heard a while back. Someone was interviewing Tom Hoobyar, founding CEO of ASEPCO. Joe is an amazing entrepreneur and his company is equally successful. In case you don’t know, ASEPCO designs and manufactures high-tech valves primarily for the pharmaceutical industry (but also for any high-purity process). There’s zero tolerance for mistakes here because if a valve fails and a “mix” is contaminated it could cost human lives. His company is so good at what they do they have about 90% of this market.

Anyway, early in the interview this is what Tom Hoobyar – successful business leader, founding CEO and entrepreneur – has to say about bad news:

“If there was news I didn’t want to hear, it was
probably going to be useful to me. The stuff I least
like to hear – once I got over being angry about it or
embarrassed by it – has generally proved useful to me.”

I have the recording of this interview; that’s an accurate quote. So he recognizes the “value of bad news.” He recognizes that out of the darkness of frustration comes progress and growth.

Later in this same interview, Tom Hoobyar said that in order to develop a team sharp enough to repeatedly win quality awards and to capture 90% of the pharmaceutical market, he has also had to deliver bad news. He has had to fire a lot of people.

Yet he values people so much that he consistently gets feedback that AFTER being fired, people feel so good about how it was handled that they don’t have any animosity. They scarcely feel like they’ve been fired. They realize this is the best thing for them too and they leave on great terms.

Unfortunately he didn’t elaborate on exactly how he did it. But I think this is a great example from a terrific leader in a very demanding industry that bad news can be delivered nicely and with consideration.



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