Very Bad Bosses (And What They Can Teach Us About Leading)
My best friend once out-bid colleagues for a chance to shave off her boss’ beard. She spent half a month’s wages. So possessed by the thought of getting to remove the beard her boss was super proud of, she was willing to eat peanut butter most of the month. The money went to charity but the real thrill, she says over 20-years later, was getting to lay her hands on her boss, who was one of those very bad bosses; “it was a revenge fantasy that came true.”
Another colleague shared with me recently that in an executive leadership team meeting her boss said, “you’d have to be blind not to understand what I’m saying.” Well, she actually is legally blind. Anyway, isn’t understanding more about hearing? Debatable but regardless, from everything I’ve heard he qualifies in my mind as one of those very bad bosses.
Most of us have experienced at least one of these very bad bosses. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. The very bad bosses that knowingly or not make our work – our lives – uber stressful. If you haven’t, count yourself lucky, consider yourself unique.
I’ve experienced some very bad bosses. Leaving out the ones that actually did unethical and even illegal things (I’ve had those too), one of my bosses created an environment so fear-filled that we’d spend hours after meetings trying to figure out what she had actually said, what she really expected from us. Because we never understood what success looked like and were afraid to ask, we certainly weren’t at our best. It showed in the results we produced.
And I hate to admit it – I’ve been a very bad boss.
In retrospect, it’s clear to me that I created an Us versus Them scenario in one organization I led. During the first all-hands meeting, employees shared (over a microphone in a banquet hall filled with hundreds) that their chief value was “never listen to anything management says.” With expectations for the organization cloud-high and scrutiny pore-deep, I recruited in people that I trusted deeply, people that worked, thought and drove themselves like me. The chasm between long-time and new staff was never truly bridged.
Obviously, it isn’t easy being a boss whether you’re a supervisor, manager or a C-Suite leader. I’ve devoured books on the subject of leading and my observation is this: most of what’s in leadership books seems unrealistic for one person to embody, to be, to do.
Can you inspire and hold accountable? How to balance production with seeing people holistically? When does authenticity blur into sharing too much? What happens when you don’t get enough time with employees for them to see you as a person too? If leadership isn’t about popularity but is about influence, what’s the line between the two? Does leadership mean you have to be perfect?
Since there are tomes on leadership, let’s instead look at what makes a very bad boss. Here’s a partial Very Bad Bosses (VBB) Playbook: They:
- buy you donuts not developmental opportunities, they don’t help you grow.
- need hearing-aids, they listen poorly.
- are ego-tethered, they take credit for successes and finger point for failures.
- seem to be playing a game of Clue, they don’t tell you where the bodies are buried, they withhold what priorities are and what success looks like.
- see you as a cog-in-the-wheel, they forget you’re a whole person.
- make sure there’s no space, no moments for reflection, they don’t value self-awareness, self-reflection time.
What would you add to the Very Bad Bosses’ Playbook? Have you learned something from a Very Bad Boss that really helped you grow? Do you have a Very Bad Boss story you’d like to share and then let it go?
This great article is one in a huge series which tackles the 6 Biggest Challenges Leaders face according to the Center For Creative Leadership Report published 2013.