A call for fortitude

Aug. 12, 2009
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor, says when fortitude is required, nothing else can take its place.

The definition of fortitude in Webster’s Dictionary is “patient courage under affliction, privation or temptation; moral strength or endurance.” This word came to mind not long ago when I was working with a client whose leadership team has been reluctant to take actions they know they needed to take. In their situation, they had a key supervisor who had been causing considerable stress on the entire organization. The key supervisor had more than 30 years with the firm and more than 20 years in his current position.

During the past few years, this supervisor seemingly did things to intentionally disrupt the good order and performance of the rest of the organization. He freely admitted that he was a source of disruption and, in my view, was essentially daring the organization to fire him.


During the past 20 to 25 years, the plant has grown and the responsibilities of the position had grown as well; perhaps beyond the capabilities of this supervisor. Over the years, the organization hadn’t really invested much in this supervisor, or others, to develop skills, knowledge and ability to deal with the changing realities. This might be the root cause of the problem, but it’s no excuse for how this supervisor behaves.

The company has very low turnover and there’s a great deal of loyalty between the organization and its employees in both directions. This presents a moral dilemma for the leadership team. It doesn’t want to kick a long-term employee to the curb.

The issue of fortitude arises because the organization knew it needed to do something, but was reluctant to get its hands dirty. The parent organization has all the policy they need to be able to manage this person. The leadership team simply didn’t appear to have the fortitude to do what was necessary.

When there are performance issues, effective leaders take into consideration an individual’s circumstances. The person might have medical or personal issues that affect performance. However, we never should forget that we’re leading more than one person. We’re leading the entire team, and our leadership of that team affects many others, inside and perhaps outside the plant.

Something I learned a long time ago was that failing to deal with a poor performer disrespects the rest of the team. Whether or not you’re focused on it, every member of your team knows who is the source of problems, and be assured, they know whether you’re dealing with it. They might not know exactly what you’re doing about it; but they know if you are or are not acting.

It’s uncomfortable to deal with an underperformer, particularly if you have a long history with that person. We need to have fortitude to overcome our discomfort. Try to think of it as balancing the discomfort you feel over having to deal with the offending person against the discontent felt by the balance of the workforce, discontent that’s generated by the poor performer’s actions. It’s easier to correct people early on than it is to let something simmer in the hopes that it will resolve itself.

Most organizations have specific policies and procedures in place for dealing with underperforming people. Such behavior might be attributable to a lack of ability or a lack of willingness. If someone lacks ability, provide training or coaching to get them to the right place. After you know it’s not an ability problem, you should consider whether the person is unwilling. If that’s the case, then you need the fortitude to follow protocol through administrative procedures.

Many organizations don’t provide adequate leadership and management training for their supervisors. In my view, this is the biggest obstacle to achieving the high performance levels that everyone expects. Even with training, senior leaders can often derail the leadership culture by what they enforce and what they don’t. Use the policies as a base of strength to deal with poor performers. If you have a training budget, provide your supervisors with the professional development tools of their trade. They will have the fortitude to work through personnel performance issues.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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