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When a Scorched Earth Strategy is What Your Leadership Needs to Succeed

Leadership is about creating and dealing with change, but oh how we’re drawn to the status quo. The pressures of leadership can seem daunting, so it’s natural to long for a few peaceful days in sun-soaked meadows. But there are times when we actually need to create more chaos before we can establish order. There are times when we need to burn the forest or  scorch the earth if we’re to have any hope of revitalized growth.

Armies have used a scorched earth strategy throughout history to destroy anything their enemy might later find useful. Firefighters do something similar with controlled burns. In cooler months, they intentionally set fires to reduce “fuel build up” that could cause hotter fires later. Or, during a wildfire, they intentionally burn an area in the path of the main fire to keep it from spreading.

There are times when leaders need to take such drastic measures.

Consider an organization in chaos because a high-level employee is under-performing. There has been a substantial investment in this employee, but it’s just not working out the way you expected. Maybe there are other factors, as well. Maybe the employee is really personable and well-liked as an individual. Maybe this is the fourth person to hold that job in five years, so another change would only add to the revolving-door perception. Maybe the employee has suffered through some tough times at home. Regardless, you feel a sense of loyalty and commitment. But as the months roll on, you realize the hard truth: The employee has to go.

This is one of my least favorite tasks as a leader, and not just because of the unpleasant conflict that comes when delivering the hard news. Making the decision is equally difficult. I don’t want to admit I made a mistake in hiring someone, that I failed to coach that person up to an acceptable level, or that I somehow didn’t give him or her the resources to succeed. I also want to cross every T and dot every I from a legal perspective. And I don’t want the hassles of finding a replacement.

In my experience, however, leaders always wait too long to fire someone who isn’t a good fit, isn’t competent, or for some other reason isn’t working out. Once they do it, though, it’s liberating. There’s a sense of relief, and not just for the leader who made the decision. In most cases, everyone in the organization knew the person needed to be fired. They might feel bad for the person who lost his or her job, but they believe things will get better for themselves and for the organization. And they do. Saplings begin to sprout across the scorched earth, and the forest grows back stronger than ever.

This doesn’t just apply to firing someone. You might have a product that your company has invested in heavily, and then you realize it’s just not viable. Maybe a competitor beat you to market. Maybe a new technology rendered your product less meaningful. Maybe the government changed a policy that limited your profitability. Shuttering the product would bring chaos, but keeping it would be organizational suicide. So, you have to let it go.

You might even need to close down a division of a company or, worst case, shut down the entire company. On a more personal level, you might need to quit your job and change careers.

A scorched earth can earn a leader trust and, in many cases, re-establish an organization toward the path of success.

These are tough calls that require a great deal of thought and discernment. But if they are made for the right reasons and with a willingness to humbly put aside your pride, they almost always work out for everyone’s best interest. The fired employee usually finds a different job that’s a better fit and/or faces and improves the realities that created his or her underperformance. The teams involved with the failing product refocus their energies on something more vibrant and viable. And the organization relieves itself of the stresses that come when the wrong person is in an important role or when people are working hard to create and market a product no one wants to buy.

The decision to burn the forest is never easy, nor should it be. But a scorched earth can earn a leader trust and, in many cases, re-establish an organization toward the path of success. Sometimes the hardest things to do are the greatest opportunities.

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  1. Lola

    this is a helpful article but holding people accountable isn’t a scorched earth approach. That is just good management.

    A scorched earth manager is one who goes on the warpath, when triggered, and burns everyone in the way.

    Reply to Lola

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