I have faced this question recently while we were talking about leadership qualities and skills with a friend. The underlying reasoning was focused on one of the leadership archetypes, harsh, authoritarian, and ruthless leaders. After the question, I went silent. During my long silence (two weeks), I challenged both the question and the leadership archetype. As a result, what I think about leadership might differ from what some people think.
The long-lasting tough-guy-leadership approach cannot survive anymore, especially in a field with rapid change, while some professions are in high demand, such as software engineering. Many problems are caused by leaders trying to be ruthless while it's not in their nature. There are a lot of people who imitate the old-fashioned leaders to learn from them. If you are one of them, be careful. If the imitation doesn't match your personality, you will create complicated situations. Impersonation often feels unnatural and confuses the people you lead. In our talk with Suzan, she mentioned that if you are telling yourself, "That's what true leaders do," or "Real leaders are X, and they do Y.," then you are on a dangerous path where you don't listen yourself. While you are not entirely authentic, how can you make accurate decisions? For example, suppose you imitate intent-based leadership while you are hands-on on every job and micromanaging. The imitation doesn't match your personality and your approach. You need to adjust either yourself or your approach. Having this conflict damages countless decisions, including firing an employee.
Firing someone is one of the unpleasant sides of management and needs to be done, hopefully rarely. There is no secret formula to make the firing decision and conversations pleasant because each situation is unique. Mismatching expectations, absence of employee progress despite the constructive feedback and coaching, and lack of motivation might be some of the problems that lead to firing. You cannot practice for these situations; they are rare. Everyone avoids them regardless of their leadership style.
If I also avoid these situations, why do I think this question a lot? I don't look like a relentless leader from the outside because I care about people and business.
The care is tricky. You get the best employees from people who care about the job, colleagues, and the business. Once they put their energy into growing the team and the company, their impact outgrows. Caring doesn't mean that they are weak and avoid difficult conversations and decisions. On the contrary, they do the job in the best interest of the people and the business. For example, suppose a colleague is disengaged, has terrible performance reviews, and doesn't show improvements although receiving accurate feedback. In that case, these caring employees can delicately handle the situation because they care about both sides' interests.
On the other hand, they will also challenge the decisions to make sure it's in the correct direction and appropriately communicated. These complex decisions are often obvious, but you will find these employees on your side offering a hand to challenge your thinking if you want to make sure you make the right decision.
To be authentic and take actions that match your style, listen to yourself. The natural toughness comes from doing what you are saying and being consistent in actions and behaviors, not imitating and acting like a person you are not.
When it comes to my answer: Yes, I can. But I can decide to fire someone in a way matching with my personality. Before the decision, I will give accurate and time-bounded feedback and let the employee know that it's coming unless they improve or change. If there is no progress, it will be a sharp but correct decision.
What are your criteria to make this decision? For example, in which situations can you go to bed without feeling the conflict between you and your inner-self? What does it take for you to feel that?
I didn't talk about communicating these difficult decisions with the organization here, but I wrote about it before; check it out from here.