5 Famously Disengaged Employees and the Lessons They Can Teach Us


It’s been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let’s consider then a lighthearted look at five famous disengaged employees from history and what their stories might teach us.  In retrospect, good practices around recognition, culture management and talent management would have made a big difference for these employees. What about yours?


Who: War hero and infamous traitor

Former Employer: Continental Congress

Status:  Defected

Employer’s Failure:  Though Arnold was one of their best leaders and soldier, his superiors failed to recognize or credit him for his successes, and instead unjustly demoted him.

Employer’s Big Loss:  West Point (nearly) and the cities later sacked and burned by this angry ex-soldier.

Lesson: Recognize and reward employee contributions.

Details:  Arnold, whose name is now synonymous with traitor, was a decorated and respected officer for the Revolutionary cause. Repeatedly overlooked and unrewarded, he was so harassed by his superiors that he demanded (and got) a court-martial to clear his name.  Exonerated, but bitter and disillusioned, the brilliant general conspired with the British and then joined their side in the war.


Who: Visionary and entertainment tycoon

Former Employer: Kansas City Star

Status:  Fired

Employer’s Failure:  The editor of the Kansas City Star newspaper failed to notice the talent he had working for him. He fired Disney as an illustrator because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

Employer’s Big Loss:  Mickey Mouse

Lesson: Discover who your true talent are and cultivate them.

Details:  Disney was fired from his job at the paper for… wait for it…. lack of creativity! Clearly, his bosses there failed to inspire him, and that lack of engagement with his work led to lackluster performance. Ironically, years later—after Disney had become wealthy and successful from his ideas— The Walt Disney Company would buy ABC, which owned The Kansas City Star.


Who: Roman politician and betrayer

Former Employer: Julius Caesar

Status:  Died in Exile

Employer’s Failure:  Boss Caesar failed to create a talent management plan that made his employees feel secure in their jobs. So Brutus and pals figured out a way to fire their boss — by way of a pointy dagger.

Employer’s Big Loss:  His life

Lesson:  Manage talent wisely and be smart about succession planning.

Details:  When the idealistic Brutus and his ambitious fellow senators thought Julius Caesar was gathering too much dictatorial power and not being as inclusive as he should be, they started sneaking around behind his back, and in the end stabbed him in it. Et tu Brute?

  MARTIN LUTHERMartin Luther

Who: Theological whistle-blower and instigator of Reformation

Former Employer: Catholic Church

Status: Excommunicated

Employer’s Failure: Instead of recognizing and supporting Luther for his contributions and reforms, the Church ignored and then retaliated against him.

Employer’s Big Loss:  A monopoly on Western Christianity. More than 1/3 of Christians today are Protestant, thanks to Luther.

Lesson: Listen to and recognize employees for their ideas.

Details:  Luther was a monk who wanted to reform, not leave the Catholic Church. But his superiors met his ideas with hostility. Luther responded by leading an exodus from the Church, a protest so profound that it spawned a new branch of the Christian religion, Protestantism. The Church later went on to initiate the Counter-Reformation, which addressed most of the issues Luther had raised—but it was too late.


Who:  Brilliant inventor, and the real genius behind electricity

Former Employer: Thomas Edison

Status:  Resigned to literally take a job digging ditches

Employer’s Failure:  Edison promised a bonus if Tesla was successful on a project. After Tesla’s completion of the project, Edison reneged. Tesla resigned bitterly.

Employer’s Big Loss:  After parting ways from Edison, Tesla went on to discover:  FM radio, remote control, robots, spark plugs, fluorescent lights, laser beams, wireless communications, Tesla’s turbines, vertical take-off aircraft and the concepts behind the electric car.

Lesson:  Appreciate, support and reward your employees, and then happily reap the benefits of their hard work!

Details:  The brilliant inventor Tesla was the real genius who harnessed the power of electricity. But employer Edison underestimated and failed to reward Tesla and then lost him as an employee.  Though he went on to make many important discoveries, Tesla died in relative obscurity.  Edison lost both the genius of Tesla’s inventive mind and ultimately the War of Currents.

Our own malcontent employees are probably unlikely to lead an insurgence or burn our city to the ground, but you can be sure that every day they are stabbing your business in the back. The good news is that many disengaged employees are really just potentially engaged employees whose passion for their work has been stifled or curdled. Win those folks’ hearts and minds, and you can turn potential disaster into measurable success for your business.

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