Self-control is essential to pragmatic leadership

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Consider this, an example of terrible leadership, an email full of non-specific anger: CEO Vishal Garg publicly accused hundreds of staffers he laid off on Wednesday of “stealing” from their colleagues and customers by being unproductive.

“You are TOO DAMN SLOW. You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS and…DUMB DOLPHINS get caught in nets and eaten by sharks. SO STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME.”

As both George Orwell and Margaret Thatcher have emphasized, incorrect metaphors tend to suggest muddy thinking. In the real world, dolphins are more likely to eat sharks than vice versa. A good metaphor suggests a vivid image that’s true to people’s experiences so “You are a dumb dolphin” fails on multiple levels. 

Also, that last part, “you are embarrassing me,” suggests an element of narcissism. It personalizes the feedback, something every leader should avoid doing. Whatever the problem is, that the CEO feels embarrassed should be the least concern of anyone. The Board can always fire the CEO, that’s not a problem, what matters, in the long-run, is whether the company is doing well. If the CEO is truly embarrassed, they should resign their position and allow the Board to appoint someone better.

Also, all caps suggests shouting, which suggests a lack of emotional control, something good leaders sometimes pretend to do strategically, but no good leader ever does this accidentally. And this seems accidental. 

Good feedback is specific and individual:

* If a worker has made a good-faith effort and failed, angry ranting doesn’t help the worker. If they were going as fast as possible, but it wasn’t fast enough, then you’ll need to teach them how to do it faster. You don’t need to be angry to do that, you only need to forthright and direct and specific. 

* If the worker has been operating in bad-faith, then you’ve encouraged them to continue to do so, because you’ve made clear that you cannot tell the good workers from the bad workers. If you, knew who the bad workers were, you would talk to them one on one, or perhaps fire them. But apparently you can’t tell the difference, so the bad-faith workers now know they can continue to operate in bad-faith, because you’re unable to them for what they are.

Calm, quiet conversations with specific workers will reveal to you who is good and who is bad. 

Sometimes when I say this to my clients, they respond with some variation of “Yeah, it would be great if we were all Zen Buddhists, but I’ve got to be pragmatic, I’ve got to run a business.” 

But self-control is pragmatic. And shouting at a whole room full of people is not. 

Less than a year later, Vishal Garg had to layoff 900 employees, roughly 8% of the company. Apparently screaming that they were dumb dolphins failed to improve their productivity. 

Especially when you have to deliver bad news to your workers, your own self-control matters. You need to offer your empathy to them, you should not be demanding that they be empathetic to you. As an example, saying that you have cried or that you feel like crying can be seen as a manipulative attempt to gain sympathy for oneself. When he announced the mass layoffs, Garg said:

This is the second time in my career that I’m doing this and I do not want to do this. The last time I did it I cried. This time I hope to be stronger. But we are laying off about 15% of the company for [a number of] reasons: the market, efficiency and performances and productivity.

The remaining 85% of the company must now move forward knowing they have a leader who, when announcing mass layoffs, wants the workers to grant empathy to him. 

You are embarrassing me!

Besides sounding a like a 13 year old asking his mom to leave the room so they can be alone with their friends, the phrase “You are embarrassing me” suggests several even deeper problems:

1. The company originates mortgages and it expanded aggressively during the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the real estate market was red hot. Having raised $900 million, they expanded rapidly. When the market cooled in 2021, they were over-staffed. In other words, the blame probably lies with the aggressive expansion overseen by the CEO. It’s unlikely that the workers are to blame.

2. Of the mass layoffs, Vishal Garg said, “This is the second time in my career I’ve had to do this” suggesting he has a habit of aggressive over-expansion. Again, it’s unlikely that the workers are to blame for this, Garg simply tried to expand too quickly. 

3. The most important issue is one of taking responsibility for mistakes. Even assuming that the workers were terrible, who hired them? Garg was both a founder and the CEO of the 5 year old company. Every single person at the company was either hired by Garg or hired by a manager who was hired by Garg. If Garg routinely hires bad workers, or if he hires bad managers who then hire bad workers, then Garg is a poor leader. He needs to improve several of his skills, including how to listen to feedback, how to give feedback, how to delegate authority, and how to hire. 

4. Why is Garg talking to every employee? Why aren’t their managers delivering the message? Be careful when you decide to break out of the hierarchy that you created at your company. There is no right or wrong answer here — I’ve known great managers who sometimes break hierarchy and I’ve known terrible managers who were careful not to break the hierarchy. But most of the time, if a worker needs to improve, that message should come from their manager, not from the CEO. Especially in a large company, the CEO cannot possibly know each worker, and therefore any feedback coming from the CEO is going to be vague and non-actionable,, “Don’t be a dumb dolphin” instead of something specific such as “You only made 20 cold calls last week, but I expect you to make 25.”

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