The 10 Best Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Worst Bosses
Written by Scott McGinnis (CEO, XGrunt Inc.) for Goombay Tally Blog | goombaytally.com | Business Leadership
When it comes to the study and practice of effective leadership principles — as a society, as students, and as management professionals, we all begin learning vital leadership lessons from our parents and from about the time we clumsily haul our Batman backpacks and lunch boxes to kindergarten.
In elementary school, we read how George Washington led his cold and battle-hardened Continental Army across the icy Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776 during the American Revolutionary War. We also learn that this daring, tactically brilliant move ultimately defeated Johann Rall’s troops and later went on to incite additional chaos and mayhem for Lord Cornwallis.
An innovative, unpredictable leader capitalizing on the element of surprise to disrupt the enemy.
Bulldog leaders like Winston Churchill shepherded an entire nation through a devastating and costly war while reminding its citizens to stay calm, focused and resilient until victory was ultimately achieved.
Developing case studies on leadership based on the life of George Washington, Winston Churchill, Ulysses S. Grant, Colin Powell, John F. Kennedy etc. are easy. These were men who changed the matrix of leadership development and exploration through their sheer personalities, circumstances, character, and grit.
But I submit to you that as leaders, we can easily miss valuable professional development insights by not adequately analyzing “failed leaders” either in history, or in our workplace. Young and aspiring workers, soldiers, and business students can gleam just as much knowledge about effective leadership from a horrible supervisor or manager as they can from a top-tier, Harvard, Yale, or West Point-educated CEO who runs a successful Fortune 500 corporation.
Most of us have nuanced stories about the best supervisors we’ve worked for … and if asked, could easily identify the very traits that made them a “great leader.”
- They take care of their employees or soldiers
- They are wicked smart
- They are technically and tactically proficient in their jobs
- They are incredibly detailed oriented and had a near-photographic memory
- They tell us what to do but never micro-managed us by telling us how to do it
- They are tough, but fair
- They take the time to learn a little about our families and interests
- They are not only great supervisors, but were great mentors and teachers
And the list continues.
Conversely, I would guess that if you asked the same people to list traits of the absolute worst bosses or supervisors that they’ve ever had, they could write a list that’s as equally intricate and just as long.
However, the trick is to take these defeating or negative traits that you’ve experienced with you worst boss, and apply the inverse variable to them. That’s where you’ll find your leadership lesson in that instance. Much like playing an old Beatles reel-to-reel backwards and finding the hidden and embedded message.
To be more specific … most of the time you will only need to add the word, “don’t” in front of the trait or characteristic of a bad boss and you have just listed an equally powerful leadership lesson. For example, one of my worst bosses made it a habit to mercilessly berate subordinates in public.
Your leadership lesson:
Good leaders don’t berate their subordinates in public … instead, they correct them in private.
In that spirit, and in that tone … here’s the 10 best leadership lessons I personally learned from my worst bosses:
1. My Worst Boss Mercilessly Berated Subordinates in Public and Made Them Feel Like Complete Sh*t.
Good leaders praise in public and correct in private. The only thing you achieve by ripping an employee “a new one” in front of their peers is widespread resentment against you and the organization and fear … not respect. Yes, some employees will need a “coming to Jesus” moment from time to time to correct poor performance or to discuss mistakes. However, this is best done with composure, dignity and away from the public square. Good bosses remember how it felt to be an entry-level employee and treat their team accordingly.
2. My Worst Boss Spent the Balance of His Time in The Office Answering Emails Instead of Engaging With His Employees.
Good leaders (deliberately) set aside time on their weekly calendar to visit with their employees on the floor or in their workplace. They know that in order to understand how their company truly operates “under the hood,” they have to actually spend time learning from the very employees who know the inner workings of the system best. These are the people who have to pull up their sleeves and actually implement the tasks, orders, or directives that the boss promulgates every day. If there is an issue with a program, these are the people who can explain to you why it’s problematic, and in many cases — how to fix it.
3. My Worst Boss Micro-Managed Everything and Everybody.
Good leaders trust their employees enough to tell them what task needs to be accomplished, but allow them the respect and flexibility to use their God-given skills and creativity to figure out how to do it. Micromanagers inevitably drain their organizations of innovation, creativity, and energy over time. Thus, employees begin to realize that their opinions are not welcomed, their decision-making skills aren’t appreciated, and their efforts are not recognized. Moreover, micromanagers will absolutely suck the morale out of a military unit, company, or corporation quicker than you can say “I want a transfer outta here please…”
4. My Worst Boss Worked Us To Death and Never Recognized Hard-Working and Dedicated Teams and Employees.
Good leaders figure out ways to create unique opportunities to recognize their people. The quickest way to kill morale in an organization is to treat your team like indentured servants while never taking the time to put them in for quarterly or annual awards. Most employees don’t ask for more than just to be told that they are doing a good job and will have the opportunity to increase their professional stock in the future. Good leaders know how to exploit this desire and ensure that the entire company knows that “Sally from Accounting” does an awesome job managing their accounts and has saved the company over $1.5 million dollars over the past year. Rest assure … this simple act will motivate Sally to give you her very best every day and make her feel like a valued employee. Yep … I get it … that bonus money won’t hurt either right?
5. My Worst Boss Bred a Culture of Distrust, Secrecy, Exclusiveness, Cliques, and Favoritism.
Good bosses are fair and honest brokers that make it a habit of discussing company issues, and problems, with management and employees in an open and transparent environment. My worst boss constantly held secrets, normalized closed door meetings in his office to discuss and badmouth upper management or other employees. My worst boss would also appear to have her “favorites” who seemingly always had her ear and attention, while other employees were all but ignored or marginalized. Worst yet, the organization’s “golden kids,” (as we would refer to them) always seemed to be very attractive males or females. If you want to destroy morale in the workplace and cause your hard workers to jump ship … cultivate an matrix of cliques and favoritism … then watch jealously and hatred eventually bring down the proverbial ship like Titanic into the North Atlantic Ocean.
6. My Worst Boss Didn’t Care About Employee Family Life, Off-time, and Morale.
Good bosses understand the impact that healthy family relationships have on employee productivity, morale, and general happiness. Also, good bosses demand mission accomplishment, but they also know that employees will be more productive when they are given the flexibility to do their jobs, while enjoying and nurturing their family life at the same time. My worst boss occasionally worked us on the weekends, even if the tasks could’ve been handled on Monday morning without missing any deadlines or without any negative operational consequences.
7. My Worst Boss Never Took the Time to Mentor Us.
Good bosses are not only good supervisors and managers, they are also great mentors. Good bosses invest time and energy into your professional and personal development. They help you “road map” a five, ten, and twenty year plan as a professional, and will give you meaningful advice on where they believe you should be within those phased periods of your life. Good bosses also sit you down and give you honest feedback when you screw up. My worst boss rarely addressed an issue with employees face-to-face … they just complained about the action to other managers or employees … or talked about them behind closed doors. Worst yet, some employees in our organization wouldn’t know that their work was sub-par until they received their written performance evaluation later.
8. My Worst Boss Led From Behind – Not From The Front.
Good bosses don’t just give orders or distribute tasks in the workplace from their safe and comfortable offices; they take a lead role in ensuring that the company’s goals, objectives, tasks, and orders have a fighting chance for success. Sometimes leaders have to prep the battlefield or create the best possible business ecosystem for their employees to thrive and succeed in their efforts. My worst boss consistently failed to follow up on programs or tasks that were administered from higher headquarters or corporate, but were the the first to reprimand the owning project managers when timelines were busted and the regional directors came looking for answers or complained about the inaction.
9. My Worst Boss Was Uninspiring and Lacked the Ability to Motivate Employees.
Good bosses have the ability to motivate and drive their employees to accomplish things that none of them would be able to achieve individually. Also, good leaders have the ability to build teams and utilize every members’ individual talents and skills to get the job done. Phenomenal leaders also ensure that even the most junior or weakest employee has “skin in the game” and uses each project or endeavor as a learning and building experience for them. My worst boss was a “wet noodle” and generally devoid of that spark that makes employees, soldiers, and managers want to follow them into battle.
10. My Worst Boss Expected Professionalism From Us … But Didn’t Demonstrate It Himself.
Good leaders set the example and “walk the walk” when it comes to professionalism on the job. Additionally, good leaders will not tell their employees to do something (or not to do something) that they aren’t capable of demonstrating every day on the job. Anything less, just makes you a hypocrite and to some extent … a fraud. Employees won’t say it to their face, but rest assure that they will be the butt of the joke after work in social settings and at the bar. Furthermore, a supervisor who doesn’t live by the established standards of professionalism on the job, loses all credibility [and standing] if an employee has to be reprimanded or even fired for similar actions in the future.
Good luck out there my friends. Be fearless.
Written by Scott McGinnis for Goombay Tally Blog