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Managing difficult talent

Published 6th January 2014 by IIP Scotland

Brendan Rodgers and the Liverpool board faced some interesting challenges towards the end of last season following the controversial and curious enigma that is Luis Suarez and his predilection for snacking on opponents that has commentators up in arms. 

Many leaders and managers in organisations will have faced the similar dilemma of how far someone’s outstanding talent is a mitigating factor when dealing with unfortunate transgressions The “flawed genius” is often someone who may appear to be given more leeway and flexibility because the value of their contribution is such that it’s unthinkable to take action which might mean the organisations loses that talent.

In conversation  with a client recently, they shared a similar challenge to that of Rodgers.  One of their sales team combined an ability to delight clients (and therefore the monthly performance figures) with a capability to cause high levels of distress and disharmony within his team.  The uplift in sales figures was so significant, that the idea of jeopardising the achievement of the end of year targets seemed to be suicidal, and yet the very spirit and sense of well being in the team was being eroded day by day. 

Similarly, on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral one commentator (on Westminster Green rather than Alan Green) suggested that good leaders are never particularly pleasant or nice people and some level of unreasonableness is a necessity in order to be able to stand firm and be resolute. 

The problem with this rationale is that it goes one step further than the proposition of “flawed genius”, suggesting that unreasonable behaviour is a defined capability rather than a deficiency in a leader, and frankly allows people to justify their sometimes awful conduct because it’s “how good leaders operate”.

Ultimately the question for any organisation is whether the pay off of compromising and giving special treatment to talented but flawed geniuses is worth the pain and fallout which comes with them. 

Patrick Lencioni suggests that those organisations with robust values have to accept that sticking to these principles will cause pain, sometimes appear to be at odds with the organisation’s commercial interests, and might make some employees feel like outcasts.  

Football is perhaps the apotheosis of how managers find it difficult to focus on the long term interests of the organisation when performance is measured on short term results.  Removing talent from any team is always likely to have significant short term impact, and it’s how far the long term interests of an organisation are best served through a flawed genius which places the greatest demand on a leader’s judgement.

Perhaps Suarez's goalscoring exploits this season may well have vindicated Rodgers decision....