Should We Fire Star Performers? Black Walnuts, Prima Donnas, Team Players

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Black walnut trees produce a toxic substance called juglone. This toxin inhibits germination and growth of surrounding plants. The toxin can even kill certain plant species. The extent of the damage depends on how resistant a particular species of plant is to the juglone toxin. It is also dependent on the amount of physical contact the plant has with the black walnut roots.


The damage to surrounding plants depends on their maturity and plant type. For more woody trees, younger, tender growth is distorted and suffers from many ailments. For more mature trees, effects of the toxin are much more subtle, the tree wilts, declines, with eventually dies.

The Black Walnut tree wants to be left alone, it does not want to contribute to the surrounding ecosystem. Even when the leaves of this tree fall, they too release a toxin around the base of the tree.

(Honourable mention to Dr Paul White for this great analogy on this innovation showon Toxic Workplaces and Narcissists)

Prima Donnas


Prima Donna = a very temperamental person with an inflated view of their own talent or importance

“”He is the best player in Sweden of the last 20 years, but the fact he’s not here has allowed everyone else to grow and take on more responsibility. You can’t play badly and win without Ibrahimovic.”” — Swedish football legend Kurt Hamrin on Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a prolific, iconic football player. He recently announced he would be retiring from international duty and no longer play for Sweden. There were mixed reactions from the Swedish public. Swedish Football legend Kurt Hamrin declared his satisfaction with the decision and said that Sweden is playing without Ibrahimovic because he was such a pain on the pitch.

Hamrin said “The team is different without Ibrahimovic. It might not be able to count on his moment of magic, but there are 11 players fighting hard. Ibra is someone who plays only for himself and makes sure the rest of the team does too.”

Many sports teams face the challenge of the prima donna all the time. A star player in the team, who is full of his/her own importance. A player who can win games out of individual brilliance, but a player who does not follow the rules, the gameplan and does not contribute to the team.

Like the Black Walnut tree, a player who stunts the growth of those around them. Like the Black Walnut tree, a player who does not contribute to the surrounding ecosystem.

Coaches who are focussed on short-term gains will build a gameplan around a brilliant player. Coaches who are focussed on long-term success not only build a gameplan on the team but work on a succession plan for the team (an academy).

Oftentimes, a coach who inherits a team built around an individual will cull the black walnuts and focus on the potential leaders of the future. The short-term gain must be sacrificed for long-term success. The coach wants to win the championship, not just the game. You win championships by developing character. A team of players with great character goes further than a team of primadonnas.

The issue such a coach will always face is the allure of short-term success. A newly appointed coach faces a public and a board who often insist on and expect immediate gains. Immediate gains are not possible until the coach takes stock of the characters she is dealing with. Once she understands the landscape she must cut the dead wood and let the suppressed wood flourish. Often the coach needs time to make sense of today before they grow for tomorrow.

Once the coach has taken stock of the character, the next steps are to create a culture of success. The coach must create a vision that everyone buys in to.

As the great Jim Collins says in his seminal work Good to Great, first you get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and then do you decide where the bus is going.

“There is an old saying about the strength of the wolf is the pack, and I think there is a lot of truth to that. On a football team, it’s not the strength of the individual players, but it is the strength of the unit and how they all function together.” — Bill Belichick

Legendary football coach Bill Belichick pushes his star performers even harder than anyone else. He uses them to set the example. No one is exempt. Belichick believes by pushing the best players to be better you set the tone for the rest of the organisation.

In any organisation, you have to be more than a set of star performers supported by grunt workers. The best players in any sport do the grunt work, they work off the ball as much as they work on the ball.

The ego is a terrible thing, many sportspeople read their own press. When the coach builds the team around them, they often fall victim to their ego. When coaches start affording the star players extra privileges, the team starts to disintegrate and poison drips into the well, killing morale, killing new growth and killing the team.

Malignant Black Walnuts in the Workplace

You can guess where all this was always headed.

There is no difference between the Black Walnut tree, the Prima Donna sports star and the malignant worker or boss in the workplace. The playing field may be different, but the principles are the same.

The Black Walnut can be your top developer, your top salesperson or your top performer.

Every successful leader I have spoken to has a common secret formula. They have not simply built a business, they have built the people who have built a business. To this effect, they must be aware of what is going on with their people. They must practice management by walking around (MBWA). They must have their finger on the pulse of the organisation.

This is why hitherto-undervalued skills such as emotional intelligence and empathy are essential to build a successful organisation of any kind.

Just like the successful football coach, the leader of a large organisation must be given time to change the culture. She must be given time to change the organisation’s thinking. To do this, all leaders need operational (as opposed to token) trustees on governing boards. Those trustees must know and care enough about what is really happening in the organisation and to initiate corrective action when it is needed.

Due to a lack of psychological safety, many leaders are slow to say that the company is pointed in the wrong direction. Many leaders are reticent to propose they may have had the right people to get the company to where it is today, but they do not necessarily have the right people to bring the company successfully into tomorrow. Leaders must be supported by boards, workers must be supported by leaders and black walnuts must be removed from any organisation.

“Talent sets the floor, character sets the ceiling.” Bill Belichick


We discuss all the above in this week’s innovation show. Should we fire top talent if they are killing our workplace? What will it do to the rest of the team? Will it kill your business? Will it kill morale? Or will it be the best decision you ever made?

We talk to software architect and technical collaboration leader at UCLA, Jonathan Solórzano-Hamilton. Jonathan wrote a blog post that took the world by storm where he told us of his experience in letting go the top talent and with that the toxic attitude that talent brought to the workplace.

The show is broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 extra 3 times weekly, Finland’s Business FM, and is on iTunes, TuneIn Stitcher Player FM Spotify, iHeart Radio and Google play. The website is here and below is Soundcloud.

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