NPR, Juan Williams, and Just Plain Dumb

Posted: October 25, 2010 in church, leadership, life, ministry

My e-mail inbox lit up last week at the news of NPR‘s firing of columnist and FoxNews contributor, Juan Williams. Interestingly, it was my friends who freely and quickly identify as conservatives who were most upset with Williams’ (who is Fox’s “liberal” voice) dismissal. Ostensibly, Williams was dismissed for these comments he made on a Fox broadcast. NPR claims Williams’ response was bigoted and not in concert with their journalistic integrity. Pushing aside the particulars — both real and imagined — of the political intent of FoxNews, NPR, Juan Williams, me or you; as leaders we have much to learn from the handling of Williams’ dismissal and how poorly NPR managed Williams’ release. There are at least 3 lessons to learn:

1. Man-Up. Williams contends that NPR was “looking for a reason” to fire him.  Suppose he is right. Perhaps NPR didn’t like his connections to FoxNews or perhaps he had long ago lost favor with his bosses. People get fired! Welcome to the real world, Juan! The problem at NPR is not that they disagree with Williams and/or FoxNews, but that their leadership was so weak that they never sat down with Williams — even when they fired him — to talk out the issue(s).

There is a simple Matthew 18.15ff principle here. Talk directly with people. In your organization, if you fail to speak straight-forwardly with people about tension, goals and performance, you will eventually have an NPR moment.

2.  One Real Reason is All You Need. Again, NPR pointed to Williams’ comments regarding Muslim on planes as the reason for his dismissal. But any reasonable person watching the entire clip will see that these comments were preamble to a bigger issue. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Williams, calling him a bigot is hard to prove. For goodness sake, he’s written one of the seminal works on The Civil Rights movement and was visible stirred on election night 2008 when America elected Barack Obama as her 44th President.

I’ve known many people fired from organizations, particularly in the church, where the reasoning never added up. One way leadership handles this is to lay out some flimsy excuse and expect everyone to believe it. And in some cases, lay out an orgy of reasons. Unfortunately, in the church, too many people are too easily appeased, which is why it continues to persist. But for thoughtful people inside and outside the organization these moves make the organization look corrupt and small. Just this morning, NPR’s president apologized for the “handling” of Williams firing. Everyone knows they had no real reason. As a leader, when you fire someone, one real, actual, provable reason is enough.

3. Pump Your Brakes. Williams was fired without a conversation. In leadership this is inexcusable. Why not wait until you can meet one-on-one? Why must it be done today? Right now? When making a staff change in your organization it is a rare case that it has to be made immediately. This allows you to think, pray, seek counsel and then make a decision. If I’ve learned anything in the “church world” it’s that hasty firings are almost always unfair firings.

Again, I could not care less about Juan Williams’ politics; the politics of FoxNews; or the politics of NPR. This fiasco is simply a massive failure of leadership, and unfortunately it happens all the time. Williams isn’t unique and he should be grateful that FoxNews has been there to scoop him up and drop $2M in his lap. There are millions of Americans right now who pray to be so mistreated.

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