Leaders are often victims of their own emotions. Nowhere is this more the case than when they engage in what I call “misguided mercy.”

We all want to be compassionate. We all want to lead with our humanity intact. This is as it should be, because robotic, unfeeling leaders are destined to fail.

Yet leaders must temper their feelings with wise judgement. Otherwise, they can give themselves to a style of leadership that salves the emotions but sabotages the company. They can fail to do the right thing because the sentimental thing is easier to live with—and more popular.

Here’s an example. Jared is a happy, friendly guy liked by everyone at the firm. Yet he’s never done his job well. His boss doesn’t want to let him go because she fears the ire of the other employees and because, well, Jared is just a great guy. The boss “wants to be merciful about the whole thing.”

Think about the cost of this kind of misguided mercy. First, Jared is being kept from his best. There is certainly some job somewhere that will be perfect for him. When the setting is right, Jared will thrive. His current setting just isn’t the right one for him. So Jared is stuck, bound by his boss’s sentimentality and cowardice. This is the price of misguided mercy.

Then there is the signal this misguided mercy sends to the rest of the firm. If Jared is allowed to keep his job merely because he’s fun to be with, and if everyone at the firm knows it, then why should anyone strive for maximum performance? No one need press for their best. Everyone stays mired in mediocrity. This, too, is the price of misguided mercy.

There is also the cost to the soul of the leader. Jared’s boss is diminishing herself. She won’t do what she knows is best. She is also betraying her commitment to the company. She was charged with making the firm the best it could be. Instead, she harbors incompetence and by doing so lies to her bosses every day she does. She’s shrinking as a leader and deforming her soul in the process. This is the price of misguided mercy.

I should tell you that Jared is a real person. He was in a real firm. He was just as I describe him and his boss was just as misguided. I was asked to help.

Jared was let go with a good severance package and some career counseling. He ultimately found a marvelous job with a PR firm where all his gifts were a fit. Today, he’s wealthy, happy, and grateful to have been fired years ago. The firm that fired him is also thriving. The boss who let Jared go says it was the toughest thing she ever did, but it was part of the crucible that made her the fine leader she is today.

Guard against misguided mercy. It isn’t mercy at all. It’s sentiment overriding judgement.

That’s it. Have a good weekend. And be sure to help us get Leading Thoughtsto the leaders who can benefit from it.

Stephen