What You Say When You Need To Ask A Friend To Do Something Unpleasant or Embarrassing…Like Resigning
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
You may not ever have to write this kind of letter, but many people do. Politicians and clergy and executives at non-profits have to do it from time to time. In business, owners and executives ask people to resign, but fewer niceties are required because, after all, the departing individual is a paid employee.
History provides us some guidance about what you say.
In the fall of 1864, the nation was gearing up for a presidential election. It promised to be a bitter, hard-fought, close contest, and the fortunes of Abraham Lincoln were not all that high. In fact, early in the year, everyone thought Lincoln was going down in defeat.
The stakes were high. If Lincoln lost, and his opponent General George McClellan won, the Confederacy was certain to get major concessions. Slavery would be allowed to continue in the Southern states, and the Confederacy might even be recognized as a separate nation.
Lincoln’s party was badly split. One faction, known as Radicals, was threatening to run a third-party candidate–if Lincoln kept Postmaster General Montgomery Blair in his cabinet. The Radicals hated Blair for too many reasons to go into here, but Blair was a symbol of everything that the Radicals did not like about Lincoln’s administration.
So a deal was struck. Lincoln would ask Montgomery Blair to resign. If he did, the Radicals would support Lincoln in the coming election.
On September 23, 1864 Lincoln wrote this letter to Blair.
“You have generously said to me more than once that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me, it was at my disposal. The time has come. You very well know that this proceeds from no dissatisfaction of mine personally or officially. Your uniform kindness to me has been unsurpassed by that of any friend.”
Montgomery Blair understood the reality of politics, that politics involves sometimes doing not what you personally prefer, but what is possible and necessary. He recognized that Lincoln was not following his personal feelings in the matter. Blair’s letter contained this sentence among others that expressed his own personal feelings toward Lincoln:
“I cannot take leave of you without renewing the expressions of my gratitude for the uniform kindness, which has marked your course toward me.”
The Radicals kept their promise. Opposition disappeared as if by magic, prominent Radical politicians began stumping for Lincoln, and Radical newspaper editors started running enthusiastic articles about Lincoln. And Lincoln was re-elected.
If you ever have to write such a letter–one that goes against your own personal feelings, but is necessary for your business or your career–consider these guidelines.
One. Do not let your personal feelings of loyalty toward one person keep you from doing what is most important. Lincoln felt that he should not knowingly lose an election that would give away what had been bought at such a high cost of treasure and blood.
Two. Your words must make it manifestly clear that there is a difference between your personal feelings and your official responsibility.
Three. Do not go into details explaining your decision.
Four. Appeal to the other party’s sense of being willing to do something for you.
Five. You may not destroy your friendship if you do this right. Lincoln and Blair remained good friends until Lincoln’s death.
I hope you never have to ne tell someone you won’t be needing them any more. But if you hold an important leadership position you most certainly will.
To do it with grace and skill will require your best forward thinking, and perhaps a backward glance in order to learn how the masters did it.