Three People Every Leader Encounters

Leaders who master the art of working with people are leaders who get ahead.
— Henry Cloud

Dr. Henry Cloud is a leader who knows how to work with people. He is a clinical psychologist whose books, speaking, and consulting have propelled leaders to new heights and improved workplace performance.

In an interview with Defining Moments, the leadership audio journal of the Willow Creek Association, Henry shared his insights on managing with discernment. At the root of this skill is the ability to distinguish and work with three kinds of people: the wise, the foolish, and the evil.

The Wise Person

Wise people are a leader’s delight. While wisdom does not automatically translate into exceptional performance and increased productivity, the wise person’s demeanor ensures that both are more likely to occur.

The Characteristics of a Wise Person:

Wise people live life skillfully. They are not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they compensate for any lack of “smarts” with a discerning heart. When wise people see “the light” (truth) they adopt, adapt, and change. Wise people are likeable people. They are humble, good listeners, and great learners. That is why the Bible says:

7 Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
8 Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
— Proverbs 9:7-9 ESV

The Strategy for Engaging a Wise Person:

Wise people are open to dialogue, so a leader’s strategy for engaging them is simple: talk with them. Wise people welcome feedback, so share it with them. Wise people want to improve, so train them. Wise people are responsible, so resource them. Since wise people see reality and willingly change, leaders lead them well when they create a workplace structure that provides expectations and metrics that create opportunities for dialogue and feedback.

The Foolish Person (mocker)

If wise people are a leader’s delight, foolish people are a leaders dilemma. Cloud says, “Fools are the difficult ones. They will get you every time ….” Why? Because they are gifted, yet without gumption. They are nice, yet unproductive.

The Characteristics of a Foolish Person:

The fool doesn’t change himself in light of the truth, but tries to change the truth to put himself in a better light. Fools shoot the messenger. Fools deny responsibility for their shortcomings. Fools shift the blame away from them to someone else or even to the leader:

  •     “If Jim had only asked me to help out earlier …”
  •     “If Sara had not been so bossy …”
  •     “If you had only given me more time …”
  •     “If you had been willing to pay me more money …”

Fools are not a hopeless cause, but their excuse-making, blame-shifting, day-dreaming, time-wasting, devil-may-care disposition is guaranteed to slow down your team’s best efforts. Here is what the Bible says about fools:

7 Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
8 Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
— Proverbs 9:7-8

The Strategy for Engaging a Foolish Person:

The Biblical strategy for engaging a fool is also simple: don’t talk to them. Henry Cloud said there comes a time when leaders stop talking with the fool about the problem. Those days are past. It is now time for a different kind of conversation. It is time to have a conversation about the fact that our conversations are getting us nowhere. It is time to talk about consequences.

Leaders set the stage for effective dialogue about consequences by doing three things:

  1.  The leader has to look at this “foolish person,” then look one-year down the road, and ask: “What do I want to be different?” If the leader does not do this, the leader can expect a vicious cycle of unproductive performance followed by blame shifting.
  2. The leader must share “the last 10%.” Too many times we share 90% of what we want to say, but we hold back the 10% that may sting because we have what John Ortberg calls, “a terminal case of niceness.” Sharing the last 10% is particularly tough because fools may be the most gifted and most charming people in the room.
  3. The leader must establish non-negotiable consequences for poor performance and enforce them. This may include demotions or even dismissal.

As Henry Cloud notes, there is great hope for fools when leaders are courageous enough and honest enough to have the hard conversations.

The Evil Person

Wise people are a leader’s delight, foolish people a leaders dilemma, but evil people can quickly become a leader’s demise.

The Characteristics of an Evil Person:

Evil people differ from fools in this, a foolish person is not trying to bring the leader down; he just does. The evil person, on the other hand, is trying to damage the leader and/or the organization. The Bible has this to say about the evil (wicked) person:

A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech.
— Proverbs 6:12
The wicked earns deceptive wages.
— Proverbs 11:18
The counsels of the wicked are deceitful.
— Proverbs 12:5
The mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
— Proverbs 15:28
Take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness.
— Proverbs 25:5

The Strategy for Engaging an Evil Person:

The leader’s strategy for engaging the wise person is to talk with him. The leader’s strategy for engaging a foolish person is to stop talking and give consequences. But when it comes to the evil person the leader must go into protection mode. Henry Cloud says that your M.O. needs to be “lawyers, guns, and money.”

Most leaders are not equipped to deal with the legal, psychological, and spiritual challenges associated with a person who is bent on hurting either the leader or the organization. Consequently, leaders must rely on “lawyers” (to handle the legal aspects of the situation); “guns” (that is, be prepared to call on law enforcement if the situation becomes volatile); and “money” (because the solution is probably going to be expensive in attorney costs and/or severance packages).

Leaders, Look In The Mirror

It is easy to think of the wise, the foolish, and the evil person “out there.” Truth be told, there is a little of the wise, the foolish, and the evil inside each of us. Leaders know this. Consequently, they regularly look in the mirror to stay wise, avoid the pitfalls of the foolish, and sort out the evil that lurks within. Here are three ways leaders look into the mirror:

  1. They spend time in the Bible.
    The Bible exposes things about ourselves that we cannot see (2 Timothy 3:16-17; James 1:23-25). The Bible is a mirror that reveals and heals. If you don’t know where to begin your time in the Word of God, start with James. Read it daily.
  2. They invite honest feedback on their life and leadership.
    Isolated and insulated leaders are train wrecks waiting to happen. Accountability is essential, but it only helps to the degree leaders want it. Fools shut the door on character development. Wise leaders welcome it. They make themselves an open book to a few trusted individuals who know them and won’t let them hide. Leaders say: “Tell me what you see in me?” Then listen closely, making changes with God’s help.
  3. They structure time for self-assessment.
    Wise leaders establish structures that force them to "look into the mirror." These include monthly self-assessments, 360-degree feedback, weekly accountability groups, and regular coaching. Such times expose blind spots and provide opportunities to get help.
Every leader leaves a wake.

Henry Cloud has said, “Every leader leaves a wake.” May your leadership leave a refreshing wake for those you serve as you learn to spot the wise, the foolish, and the evil -- and learn how to work with each.

NOTE: This post was drawn from Henry Cloud’s interview with Jim Mellado and Nancy Beach in the November 2010 edition of Defining Moments ( “Managing With Discernment”), the Willow Creek Association (WCA) audio journal for leaders. To get the download, click here.