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AOL boss blew it in public firing

By Marilyn Puder-York, Special to CNN
August 13, 2013 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marilyn Puder-York: AOL chief apparently publicly fired employee on conference call
  • She says leaders need to manage their emotions, even under trying circumstances
  • She says employee may have been annoying, but boss should have dealt with it privately
  • Writer: CEO should do damage control: employees respect accountability, humility

Editor's note: Marilyn Puder-York is an executive and leadership coach to CEOs and the author of "The Office Survival Guide."

(CNN) -- On Friday, AOL chief Tim Armstrong apparently fired AOL Patch.com Creative Director Abel Lenz during a conference call with some 1,000 employees listening.

The CEO was explaining changes at Patch that would reduce the number of sites in its local news network from 900 to 600. During the call, according to a number of sources, Armstrong told Lenz to put his camera down and then, in the same breath, told him he was fired. Then Armstrong resumed his conference call.

It's hard to know from the audio of his remarks -- which rocketed around online after the incident, drawing mainly derision and shock -- the complete circumstances of the exchange. On the face of it, though, it didn't sound so good.

Was it good leadership?

Marilyn Puder-York
Marilyn Puder-York

One of the top capabilities for adults in leadership roles is the ability to manage emotions even under the most trying circumstances. This self-awareness and self-management is part of being emotionally intelligent.

Leaders' behavior has tremendous impact on others. Not only does it affect morale and productivity, it also provides the behavioral model for others who look up to the person in power. CEOs more than most have to manage the elegant balance of communicating tough messages in a straightforward manner but with a respectful style. They are representing themselves and the culture of their organizations to the world.

There was a better way for Armstrong to have expressed his frustration at Lenz. Armstrong was conducting a conference call to a huge number of employees, and he was trying to deliver a tough message to them. No doubt Lenz's taking photos of him during this call irritated and might have distracted Armstrong from his focused message.

As humans, we all get stressed, have rough days and get triggered emotionally by the behavior of others. In fact, those of us with the highest standards of performance tend to have the strongest reactions. But that doesn't give license for us to react impulsively.

Would we say to a colleague who is talking nonsense: "You are stupid?" Likely not. If we needed to convey dissatisfaction with an employee's conduct, we do it privately so as not to humiliate the colleague and make ourselves appear heartless to others.

At the same time, Armstrong had the right to feel annoyed. He was trying to give a difficult talk.

What should he have done? Remembering his role as a leader, he should have sternly told Lenz his behavior was distracting and that if he didn't stop, there would be consequences. If Lenz became insubordinate, Armstrong should not have lost his temper but should have made a decision to deal with the behavior at a later time. And that's after he did his due diligence with his human resources department. And he would advise Lenz that a confrontation was not productive while he was conducting a conference call, but that there would be discussions in private.

The outcome might have been the same but would have seemed to follow from reasonable judgment and not a knee-jerk emotional reaction.

I don't know the CEO in question and his relationship with the employee. There may be much more going on than we know at this point. But given Armstrong's leadership role, I would coach him to be accountable for what may have appeared to the listeners to be impulsive behavior and to do some damage control.

Most people are forgiving when they know their leaders are human. But they respect and are inspired by the leader who demonstrates humility, accountability and willingness to admit and learn from mistakes.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marilyn Puder-York.

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