Ten Lessons I Learned from Bad Bosses

Photo by Charlota Blunrova on  Unsplash

Photo by Charlota Blunrova on Unsplash

I have been abundantly blessed with the success I have enjoyed during my 31-year corporate career and now as an independent consultant. Looking back, I can clearly see that much of my personal growth as a leader came about while I grappled with the challenges of the turnaround situations I was deployed to. There were at least 7 of those that I can recall, and they all served a purpose in some form or fashion.

I also earned a great deal from my bosses many of whom were completely supportive leaders who believed in me and role-modeled servant leadership through the ups and downs of the process. I owe much of my success to them as they provided coaching, positive reinforcement, constructive feedback, and at times, told me things I didn’t want to—but needed to—hear.  

On the other hand, I also had to deal with my fair share of bosses who did everything they could to make things difficult, both for me and for the organization. Most were more concerned with their image than the health of the organization, lacked emotional intelligence and tactfulness, didn’t believe transformation was possible or even worth pursuing, and so on. There were those who constantly sowed seeds of doubt and cynicism, those who didn’t lift a finger to help with transformation efforts, and even those who actively seemed to create roadblocks for any initiatives that were actually gaining traction. I can’t say they were all bad bosses, but many did behave like bad bosses pretty consistently, so make of that what you will!

What I realize now, in retrospect, is that I indeed learned just as many valuable lessons from the bad bosses as I did from the good ones. In fact, having to fight for the support and resources we needed to transform the workplace under bosses who were not on the same page just strengthened our resolve that much more. Although it was painful at the time, I can’t help but credit the most rapid and powerful growth spurts in my career to behaviors I saw that I was clear I should never emulate.

The following represents a few specific scenarios where my bosses behaved in less than admirable ways, as well as the invaluable lessons that I gleaned from those situations:

·         The Wednesday Night Massacre – My boss had been clear that when we planned a maintenance outage, we had to plan every detail far in advance and make no changes during the week prior to the event. My fellow maintenance managers and I knew the expectation and yet we made a principle-based decision to add a minor task to the list to address an issue that had recently been discovered. In our professional judgment, this was a prudent decision for the company before we shut down a multi-million dollar piece of equipment for maintenance. Later, we were at our monthly social outing with the boss where he’d buy us a few beers and get the inside scoop on what was really going on. At one point, one of the maintenance managers let the boss in on what we had done, thinking he wouldn’t have a problem with it. This brought the pleasantries to a halt, and the boss went into “Incredible Hulk” mode and proceeded to chew us out in the most vicious and disrespectful manner in front of the other ten or so of our peers. Then he abruptly dismissed everyone else, who quickly scurried out of the place, and proceeded to chew us out some more. Finally, he stopped and asked us how we felt, because, of course, he cared so much about us!! When we were honest about our feelings, he chewed us out some more and then dismissed us! A few days later, he gathered us around to reflect on the incident, which by then had gone down in history as the “Wednesday Night Massacre,” and then delivered a “non-apology!”

Lessons Learned:

1.       When it is necessary to deviate from arbitrary standards in order to meet a real business need, go ahead and do it, even though you may have a scar on your hind parts to show for it later. Ideally, when such deviations are warranted, extend the courtesy to inform those who have set those standards as soon as possible.

2.       Embarrassing people in front of their peers, or anyone else for that matter, serves no productive purpose, and will do irreparable damage to your reputation that you will never really recover from. Just don’t do it. And if you do, apologize and make it right.

·         Rehearsed Intimidation – My operation was having a tough time in the early stages of a turnaround (which eventually had a happy ending) and my boss and his boss came to pay us a visit. As I met with the two of them, my boss’s boss went off on a tirade and was literally yelling and screaming at me for not having fixed the problems yet. I was bewildered, as I thought they were there to find out what support I needed from them, but she continued to dish out more incoherent insults. I remained quiet and only answered the questions she asked. I later found out that the two of them had rehearsed the details of this meeting, including where each of them was going to sit in my office and what each of them would say!

Lesson Learned:

3.       Never shy away from delivering the tough feedback people need to hear, but do it while keeping your composure and, certainly, do not rehearse premeditated drama for effect. It causes you to lose credibility, makes you look like a buffoon, and gets nothing useful done.

·         No-win Situation – While dealing with the challenges of the aforementioned operation, my boss and his boss decided that it was time for them to come and camp out at the plant, take matters into their own hands, and lead my operation. They were under the illusion that we had “simple issues” that they would be able to easily figure out and address. However, they both discovered that this was (obviously) not the case, and eventually, left us to do what we needed to do. Meanwhile, it was clear that, in their minds, had they succeeded, they would be heroes, and had they failed to make any more progress than we were making, it would have been because we had screwed up so badly that even they could not fix it.

Lesson Learned:

4.       Leaders must be the guides and supporters, not heroes. Even if you have the answers, and even if you deem appropriate to take a hands-on approach, do so with the aim of supporting, elevating, and building capability in the people who have been entrusted to lead.

·         Caught in the Crossfire – My regional boss and my local boss were friends personally, but were like fire and water professionally. The regional boss did everything he could to not support anything I was doing in my operation, and my local boss knew what was going on but didn’t want to intervene. I was unsuccessful in pleasing either of these two powerful figures as they often provided conflicting direction. As I ended my assignment in a less than glamourous way, the regional boss admitted to me that I had gotten caught in the crossfire. In his mind, my local boss “didn’t know which end of the hammer to hold,” and they never saw eye to eye, yet I was the one who paid the price for their unwillingness to let go of their pettiness and work for the good of the organization.

Lessons Learned:

5.       If you have multiple bosses who give you different direction, do whatever you can to bring them together to resolve their issues, rather than trying to keep them both happy. The latter most likely won’t work.

6.       As a leader, get aligned with your peers rather than pushing the complexity down the line and putting your people between a rock and hard place. Forcing them to choose between following your direction or your peer’s, means ensuring that the organization will suffer because of your lack of interpersonal integrity.

·         Lack of Integrity – My boss would invite me and a couple of other colleagues out to dinner and would order expensive bottles of wine. Then, even though company policy stated that the highest-ranking person must pick up the tab for business entertainment, he would always ask one of us to pay the bill so he could approve it in order to hide the unreasonable expenses from his boss.

Lesson Learned:

7.       Integrity matters, all the time! That goes triple for leaders! When you demonstrate lack of integrity in one area, you lose credibility and respect as a leader, and as a person, in all other areas of your life.

·         Absent-minded and Unapologetic – My boss consistently raved about my performance for months and repeatedly let me know I could expect a great pay raise in a shorter period of time than average. I had been getting raises every 9 months. Nine months came and went and no raise. Right around 12 months, I decided to inquire about the raise. She was shocked that I had not received it and said she had turned the paperwork in. Then she found out she had actually not processed it properly, so it would be another month before I got may raise. I was not surprised, as managing the details wasn’t her thing and I had to remind her to do many of the routine tasks she was responsible for. (On more than one occasion, I had to ghost-write her memos and do other things to make her look like she had it under control.) When I asked if she would be willing to make the increase retroactive, she blew up and not only refused to acknowledge that she had dropped the ball, but became very aggressive in basically calling me greedy for asking for what she had promised and failed to deliver for months!

Lesson Learned:

8.       We all make mistakes. When it happens, at least own up to it. If you can make it right, do so, but if it can’t be done, apologize and try make it up to the person who was affected.

·         Jealous Boss – On one occasion, I joined the company President’s leadership team, and as I quickly earned his trust, he asked me to spearhead a certain effort. Excited about this opportunity, I approached one of the other team members whose responsibilities were along the lines of what I had been asked to lead, so we could collaborate and make it happen. I was shocked when this person, who was higher on the organizational chart than me, became visibly irritated and stated that the work I had been asked to do was their job and that he didn’t understand why the President would have asked me to lead it. I did my best to let him know that I would be happy to follow his lead and we could work together, but our relationship was never the same. While I considered him to be a ranking member of the team, he continued to see me as competition that needed to be defeated.

Lesson Learned:

9.       Be secure enough in your contribution that you are not worried about others, especially those in more junior roles, taking away your “credit.” Jealousy and insecurity diminish your standing and credibility in the eyes of others.

·         No Personal Life Allowed – During a tough turnaround, when we had all been working extra hard to get the results on track, I took a few hours off to attend my son’s high school graduation. While I was at the ceremony, my boss’s boss—yes, the same person mentioned earlier—was blowing up my cell phone over an insignificant issue that could have waited a few hours until I got back. She knew I was at the graduation, but she wanted my attention and she refused to take no for an answer. I ended up taking her call after the ceremony and getting yelled at, again, over something my team clearly had under control already. It was clear to me she wanted to inflict as much pain on me as possible, because of her own insecurity and fear that he value to the organization would be undermined if those more junior to her were to succeed.

Lesson Learned:

10.   Treating people with dignity and respect and extending the courtesy of respecting their personal lives should not depend on their performance at work. Failing to demonstrate that you can care about people when the going gets tough shows them your true colors. Mistreating people in such a way means that you can pretty much say goodbye to any goodwill you might have built up until this point.

So, there are a few lessons I learned from my bad bosses, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. The bad bosses we all have to deal with in our lives have chosen to act in such a way that, instead of being our allies and supporters, they have turned themselves into obstacles we must overcome or work around. But, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, it is not obstacles that block our path, rather, it is that the obstacles themselves are the path. The heavier the burden you have to shoulder, the stronger your muscles become in response. As I like to say, nothing bad has ever happened to me, because it all eventually worked for good in the end. Every experience is a teacher, and that goes even more for negative ones.

Thanks to my bosses who didn’t believe in me, until they saw the results anyway, I had to believe in myself and my people. Because a few of my bosses had no faith in a brighter future, I had to develop faith in the transformative vision I had for the organization. When they withheld the resources I needed, I had to become wiser at using what I had available. Because I didn’t get support from them, I had to engage my peers so that we could support each other. And because many of them did whatever they could to drag me down, it only ensured that I would have to surpass them and essentially render them obsolete.

What invaluable lessons have you been lucky enough to learn from your bad bosses? Or are you currently in a situation with a bad boss, and would like help trying to figure out what lesson you should be taking away? Let me know in the comments below.

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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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