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The Hanging Of Jonathan Wild: A Leadership Lesson

By Brent Filson

Jonathan Wild, notorious English criminal (1682-1725) picked the pocket of the priest who administered the last rites on the gallows at Tyburn. The unrepentant felon triumphantly waved his trophy, a corkscrew, just before he was dropped to his death.

There is a leadership lesson in this. And it's a lesson many leaders miss. When you're leading a group of people of whatever size to get results, understand that roughly about 20 percent of the people will be against you. The 20 percent won't do or at least won't want to do what you require and thus may perform poorly on the job.

One of the most persistent and difficult challenges of leadership is dealing with poor performers. Aside from job-related problems they engender, they also squander time and resources. "Forty percent of my time," a CEO told me, "is devoted to dealing with ten percent of my employees."

Mind you, I'm not talking about poor performance tied to "skill" issues. People who are not measuring up because they lack skills and knowledge to do well usually need a different intervention than people who have "will" issues.

You might make a rough equivalence between the people performing poorly on the job because of will issues with the Jonathan Wilds of the world. After all, as an upright citizen, Wild was a "poor performer." But as a pickpocket, he was adroit.

Putting aside the specific kinds of interventions you might undertake, the important thing is your perspective. In dealing with them, you absolutely must not underestimate the skills, talents, and proficiency they bring to poor performance. They can "pick your pocket" and you won't even know it.

You have three choices when dealing with them. You can choose to live with them as they are. You can choose to rid yourself of them. Or you can choose to intervene to try and change them. There's no fourth choice.

Or maybe I should say there's no first choice either. The first "choice" may be no choice at all. You probably can't leave them alone. Poor performers are usually not content to be one-man-bands. They love company. They need to recruit others onto their poor-performance teams - or at least keep them from joining your team. In this capacity, they're smart, adaptive, innovative, and good leaders. Your underestimating them gives them an advantage against you.

There are many ways to deal with poor performers. (Articles on my web site detail a few.) The point is that in your dealings, keep in mind you could be up against some Jonathan Wilds, those people who may be performing poorly on the job but who perform excellently in their parallel, and maybe to them more important, job -- which is being against you.

2006 © The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

About The Author

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. - and for more than 20 years has been helping leaders of top companies worldwide get audacious results. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get a free white paper: "49 Ways To Turn Action Into Results," at For more on the Leadership Talk: http:///


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