In Britain, a Loose Cannon

The UK prime minister must work through a common internal issue right before a pivotal Brexit speech.

On the brink of making a history-defining speech for her nation, UK Prime Minister Theresa May first is dealing with a considerably more mundane leadership problem: Should she fire an often-savvy but occasional loose cannon of a direct report?

For the moment, it’s unclear whether May will sack British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Johnson laid out his vision for a “bold thriving Britain”—and one May doesn’t necessarily fully agree with—in a 4,000-word newspaper essay late last week. The ensuing political kerfuffle not only embarrassed May but also precipitated calls for Johnson’s immediate dismissal. On Wednesday Johnson changed his plans so he could travel with May from New York to London before they travel to Italy together, where observers expect May to deliver a speech outlining the UK's strategy for leaving the European Union.

While business and politics aren’t the same, there are notable parallels for bosses. “Yes, you can fire them, but then you run into the situation that you have now set loose your loose cannon,” says Lynn Isabella, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. “When fired, that loose cannon could shoot in any direction and you have no control over it.”

In other words, dismissing a misbehaving employee, such as Johnson, means that you go from having some influence over that individual’s behavior to having no influence. In a public arena such as politics, there are instances when it is even more dangerous to dismiss someone that it is to retain them.

The same can be true is business especially when the employee has hard-to-find skills, such as a track record of leadership in a hot industry. The last thing you want is such a person jumping to a competitor. Experts say it comes down to an oft-used phrase, "Do you want them inside the tent looking out, or outside the tent looking in?"

What’s the alternative to dismissal? “I would suggest executive coaching,” says Isabella. That can involve the boss laying down the rules of behavior expected of the unruly person. Or it might mean influencing the employee through the people whom he or she is known to respect, a form of  “management by proxy."

Whatever the boss decides, it is vital to keep an eye on what is most important in running the business. “What you don’t want to do is anything that detracts from the business at hand,” says Isabella. In May's case, that is running the country; in business that means running the company.