I know, I know… No one is ever supposed to publicly talk about how bad their boss is. After all, why would a potential employer want to hire you if it is at all possible that you might voice a bad opinion about them? Let’s get something straight right before I begin. Everyone has had a bad boss or ten. Everyone has talked to someone about their bad boss, although, maybe in confidence. Talking about bad bosses is a normal, everyday human activity. What I am not going to do here is use names, ranks, dates, or units that I was in. My intent is not to smear my bad bosses from the past. It is also not to cast the Army in a bad light. I’ve loved the Army enough to devote nearly 20 years to it. But let’s face facts – even the Army, an organization that prides itself on the leaders it builds, and has a right to because it builds great leaders, has some bad bosses in the ranks, and there are people that have worked for them. So my intent here is to convey to you, my beloved reader audience, the lessons I learned while being challenged by sub-stellar superiors.
To be fair, my bad bosses were not bad people. If they were just ordinary people, and not my bosses, it would be very easy for me to be their friends. I do believe I could knock back a few cold ones and shoot the breeze with the lot of them. I respect them for the people they are, and I wish them and their families the best in the world. They just weren’t great bosses, and now I am going to tell you why, and, what I learned from them. I’ve probably learned more important lessons from my bad bosses than from my good ones, although I’ve learned more lessons from the good than the bad.
The first bad boss I had was The Yeller. I get that some bosses yell from time to time. In the Army, many of the bosses yell much of the time, but that is a trend that is dying in this day and age. But The Yeller, he yelled ALL the time. I honestly don’t know how he wasn’t hoarse all of the time. I swear that he must have had extra voice boxes, and went through at least three a day. I was never quite sure why he yelled at me all the time, or other Soldiers either. I know it didn’t start until after I told him I didn’t intend on reenlisting a second time, but that may just be coincidence.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no marshmallow. I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of tirades. Mostly, I see it as the last resort of a boss that doesn’t have a fix for a problem that has been caused, either by himself or someone else. Since The Yeller yelled all the time, I didn’t really know what the problem was. I could probably handle it if it was just yelling, but it was the things he yelled that really got to me.
At the time that I worked for him, I was still pretty young. I knew what I was supposed to know about the Army and my job, but I didn’t know everything. I could really have used a mentor at that time. Instead, I got yelled at for not knowing the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I also got yelled at for the things I did know, but didn’t know enough about. I even got yelled at for the things I knew, and the things I did well. There was also no shortage of abusive and profane words in these verbal assaults. He did have his way of letting me know when I did a really good job at something. He said nothing at all. Or, he might say something like, “I’m sure you’ll find a way to (foul) it up.” This was a compliment, and at times made me not unhappy.
The problem with The Yeller is that his leadership of me began to cause my performance to decline. Let’s use a logical flow here: If The Yeller yells when I do something bad, and The Yeller yells when I do something good, why should I put any effort into doing good things for him? I might as well just do whatever I wanted. I knew he wasn’t going to write a good performance review for me anyway. At least, I believed wholeheartedly that he wouldn’t. So I did whatever I wanted.
Let’s remember that this boss was many years ago. My own personal pride, self-esteem, and happiness would not allow me to perform that way again, no matter how much my boss verbally abused me. But I did learn some lessons from him, and here they are:
1. DON’T YELL ALL THE TIME.
If you do, your subordinates will just do whatever they want, since the consequences of all actions are identical. Yelling doesn’t solve anything. Once in a while, it might emphasize a point, but no abusive or profane words should ever be used. Usually, it either escalates into two people yelling, or it results in a team member who is too afraid of their boss to do a good job. The one thing I know for sure is it doesn’t solve the problem that someone is yelling about.
2. PRAISE IN PUBLIC; REBUKE IN PRIVATE.
I was getting yelled at in front of all my coworkers all the time. Even they began to devalue me. No one wanted to help me with my job. Nobody wanted to hang out with me after work. No one in the office wanted to be seen as friendly to me, because they might then become a target for The Yeller. I actually had people tell me, “I’d love to help you, but I don’t want to get on _____’s bad side.” If you dehumanize someone publicly, or in some way make them lose face, you will create an ineffective team member.
On the flip side, praising in public, and praising people every single time they deserve it, does the opposite of all those things. Your team will know that you are a grateful and appreciative leader, and will work harder for you.
3. EVERYONE HAS VALUE AS A PERSON.
This was a tough one to learn. I certainly didn’t feel like I was of equal value to anyone at the time. I had to realize that The Yeller couldn’t take away the people or things I loved and cared about in my life, and he couldn’t make them stop loving or caring for me. I also had to realize that it did me no good to say bad things about him, because he had people in the unit that cared about him. Although I felt he deserved the things I said to people about him, I’m sure when those words got back to him that they hurt him, at least a little. Nobody likes to have bad things said about them, especially by a subordinate. So I learned that even if I didn’t like my boss, I should keep my personal feelings to myself. Looking back, I should have made a professional complaint. But now I know better than to say bad things about anyone, because they are truly never justified.
The second bad boss I had was Mr. Do-it-all. Believe it or not, there are worse things out there than being micromanaged. Mr. Do-it-all was my boss right about in the middle of my career. He’s the guy that doesn’t think that his team can do the job to his standards, so he doesn’t even bother to micromanage. He just does everything himself. After a few months, I learned that it was a waste of my time to try to do anything, because even if I did, he would redo it his own way. Most of the time it was an exact duplicate of what I had done in the first place. The irony of it is that he would always complain to the members of the team that we didn’t do enough to help him. He cried constantly about how he could never take leave, because the team would completely fail in his absence. He never tried to teach anyone anything, because it was “just quicker to do it (him)self.”
Unfortunately for the team, all of our performance reviews suffered for this. We had barely anything to show for all the time spent at work. Of course, Mr. Do-it-all had a good performance review. Why not? He had done everything assigned to the team all by himself. I say that he had a good performance review, and not an amazing, or even great one. This is because the commander realized that none of his subordinates were picked to go to schools, none of them had received any awards during the rating period, none of them had been to a promotion board, and all of the other team leaders had subordinates that did do all these things. My boss’s team was stagnant, and the commander thought that although my boss was an amazing Soldier (and he was), that he was only an average leader (and he was).
Despite the fact that he made no effort to teach me anything while I was his Soldier, I still learned things from him. Here is what I was able to figure out for myself:
1. IF YOU NEED TO BE AT WORK ALL THE TIME TO SUCCEED, YOU HAVE ALREADY FAILED.
A team consists of a leader and a group of followers. We were not a team. We were one amazing Soldier and a group of good but less experienced Soldiers. My boss, the amazing Soldier, had yet to make the transition to amazing leader. I’m sure he got there someday, long after we had parted ways. But, it was too late for this particular group. The damage had been done. We could not function to do our mission without him, because he had made it that way.
2. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS BE TRAINING YOUR REPLACEMENT.
It almost seems counter to one’s own job security, doesn’t it? But in today’s corporate world it isn’t, and I am happy to explain why. When people stayed at a company for 40 years, a subordinate who could do your job better than you was a threat. Management might see fit to have you and your subordinate swap roles. This is no longer the case. If you are learning your boss’s job (as we will talk about in the next section), and you have trained a suitable replacement, then both of you might get to move up. Or maybe not. If the subordinate you have trained is now also very good at what you do, in today’s business world, he may leave for another company. Or, your company might give him a pay raise to entice him to stay and wait for a position to open up where his new skills will be an asset.
There is the added benefit that if you have a team member that can do your job as well as you, you will actually be able to take days off. It will also help your performance review if your team members accomplish great things, and it will help their reviews if they are able to act in your absence.
3. IF YOU’RE NOT TEACHING, YOU’RE NOT LEADING.
Oh, how the fervent workers desire the crumbs of knowledge for nourishment! There are some people who are happy doing the same exact thing day in and day out for 50 years. Some, but not many. True professionals are always looking for a new idea, an edge, something to gain, some new way to do things. They are eager to embed lessons learned into their heads, so they don’t waste time repeating the mistakes of those who have gone before them. For a leader to store up a wealth of organizational knowledge in their head and not share it with subordinate members of the organization is a waste. Once the leader leaves, all the knowledge goes with them. At that point, the organization must spend time, money, and resources teaching those people what they paid the leader who left to teach them.
The third bad boss I had was Mr. No-show. This guy doesn’t last long in the private sector, but they are much harder to be rid of in the Army. Everyone knows the type. He would admonish you if you were 10 minutes late, but he’d never know it because he shows up 20 minutes late himself, if he shows up at all. Many times, he’ll show up for a short time in the morning but always has some personal matter to attend to that requires him to leave. Or he leaves for a meeting that is scheduled for 10 a.m. at 8:50. When all the other people at that meeting come back to their regular work areas, he is somehow 30 minutes behind them. When he is at work, he is so disengaged, he doesn’t get any work done anyway. Half of the time, he’s asking his team members what is going on for the day, or the week, or whatever. Oh that thing? You’ll have to handle that because he has to take his daughter to the dentist that day. When you check in with him at 4:30 p.m. to get final instructions for the day or do a daily sync, he isn’t in his office. You look out the window into the parking lot, and you see nothing but rubber tire marks in his parking spot.
But what’s this? It’s 9 a.m. the next day, and he’s calling all the team members together. He is not satisfied with the performance of the team because he heard about some things that didn’t get done because the First Sergeant was telling him all about it in the office this morning. What things didn’t get done? You’ll never know. Mr. No-show had a whole list when he came back from that meeting yesterday, but he forgot to pass it on to the team. Now Mr. No-show is taking plays out of The Yeller’s book for the next 2 hours. And you and the rest of the team better get all those missed tasks done, because he’s taking leave for the next two weeks starting tomorrow, and he doesn’t want to be bothered.
Although I spent more time sitting in his chair than across from his desk, I still learned the following things from him:
1. LEARN HOW TO DO YOUR BOSS’S JOB.
First of all, you never know when you might have to. This one might be obvious to Soldiers in combat, but maybe less obvious to other occupations with fewer fatal hazards. Even if you have a great boss, emergencies and unexpected events occur. Your boss may have little or no time to do a proper continuity or succession brief with you. If you already know how to do his job, you’ll be the hero by picking up where he left off. And if you are filling in for Mr. No-show, it makes it easier for the company to give him the heave-ho, and put you in his place, either as an interim job or even permanently. This ultimately helps your team as well.
2. ALWAYS ASK YOUR BOSS HOW THE MEETING WENT.
Communication is the key to success in any organization. I know, not exactly a watershed moment, right? But the reason you hear it so often is because it is so true and so critical. Bosses like Mr. No-show are often disengaged in the workplace, and either don’t know enough to communicate important information, or just don’t care enough to do it. Even good bosses sometimes get caught up and forget to pass on info. Sometimes they are upset and preoccupied with what happened in the meeting. Other times, they come straight out of the conference room and someone blindsides them with something completely different before they can brief the team. Then, they end up forgetting altogether.
3. LEAD BY EXAMPLE.
This one is also taught by doctrine, and is no doubt in every leadership book ever written since the beginning of time. It never really sunk in until I worked for Mr. No-show. The funny thing is, although I had great team members, they all started turning into mini-Mr. No shows. The he later he would come in, the later they would come in. The more apathetic he was to the mission, the more apathetic they were. It was like watching rats fleeing a sinking ship. At this point in my career, I was too advanced to let it happen. I gathered the team together and demanded that all the shenanigans stop. The team reached a mutual agreement to recommit themselves, and drive on despite Mr. No-show.
If you want your team to be 10 minutes early, you have to be 15 minutes early yourself to make sure they are there. You have to be able to complete their tasks in their absence. Since you’ve become the boss, you might have lost a proficiency point or two, but you can still get the job done. You have to be able to keep the team informed, and adhere to company policies. If you make a mistake, hold yourself accountable the same way you would hold your team members accountable. You will gather much respect for yourself as a leader in this way. The leader you are is the leaders you will make.
There are hundreds of lessons I could recount. These are just some of the more memorable ones from some of my most challenging times. Just because you have a bad boss doesn’t mean you can’t overcome the challenge. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. At the very least, you should know how not to become them.
As I said before, my intent here is not to smear anyone, or complain, or cast my organization in a bad light. I have respect for all my bosses as people, and for every example of a bad boss I have cited here, my organization could put up thousands of great examples. My only intent is to show that no matter what your superior-subordinate experience is, you can always take away a positive lesson. In fact, I have one bonus lesson that may help some of you that find yourself challenged right now in one of the same ways I was: NO ONE STAYS WITH THE SAME BOSS FOREVER.
I’ll leave you with that one. I am looking forward to all of your comments.