May 30, 2024

The Worst Boss I Ever Had

Susan DeWoody, Ed.D.

I was recently sitting at a leadership conference listening to the morning keynote speaker who asked audience members to reflect specifically on the leaders along the way who have impacted our lives. Immediately, my mind was flooded with images and moments over my 22-year professional career where I worked with impactful leaders. And while most people in the room are picturing the champions, encouragers, and supportive leaders that have been a part of their story (and I am lucky to have those, too!), I couldn’t help but also picture the worst boss I ever had and reflect on the impactful lessons learned from that part of my story earlier in my career.

You may have clicked on this post today hoping to read some visceral narrative about a former supervisor, and how he or she ruined my life/career/confidence. Well, if that’s the thrilling genre you seek, you will likely be disappointed. Instead, let’s look at how to learn life lessons from those less-than-stellar managers and bosses we will find ourselves reporting to at one point or another in our careers:

  1. What is your WHY? Simon Sinek, in his popular book, Start with Why, says we should consider that there are two different ways to influence human behavior: manipulation or inspiration. When working for the worst boss I ever had, my mind had to remain increasingly focused on the team I was leading and the population we were serving. My “why” was making a difference in the lives of the students and furthering the mission of the institution, not the personal agenda of my boss and his/her emotional whims. If I could protect the team and focus on inspiring them to fulfill the mission/goal, we would fulfill our purpose. So, every morning I woke up in that role, the people became my why.
  2. Learn what you will (and will not) tolerate. Throughout this appointment, I tolerated behaviors that would leave outsiders aghast. A narrative from the book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, is all too familiar from past interactions:

“Histrionics were common during staff meetings, and participants often felt bruised, battered, and humiliated at the end of their meetings with her. She would stomp around the new office complex–which she had leased because she wanted a bigger office–without acknowledging others, barking out orders and generally intimidating, frightening, and pushing people around” (p. 11).

After multiple experiences similar to what Babiak and Hare described, I decided that neither my resume nor my job description included “punching bag” as a deliverable service. For future reference, I decided I wouldn’t be able to attend meetings where the chair of the meeting was behaving badly and treating those in attendance without dignity (and without cause). For some reading this, you may wonder what those in the room did to “deserve” such treatment? Rest assured, these were not “teachable moments” in the office of an angry manager trying to communicate constructive feedback; the venom spewed was ugly, often personal, and even catty.

From those lived experiences, I learned that when I was faced with my supervisor’s raised voice and angry red face, it was incredibly important to be the calm consistent voice in the room and to provide stability when emotions were running high. Also, I now recognize there are some instances when the meeting and conversation is no longer productive. In those moments, I have predetermined my game plan—I will gather my things and calmly indicate that we could return to the conversation at a future time and to share where I can be found when the angry party has regained his/her composure.

  1. Continually refine your own leadership style. I believe that one of the wisest choices a leader can make is to be a learner, constantly reading about, absorbing, and observing leadership around them. In your career, you will have leaders you wish to emulate and those you wish to eliminate from your journey. Both leaders are teaching you something about leadership–are you listening? I have my own tendencies to be Type-A, goal-driven and ambitious, to operate mechanically to accomplish the work, but I have learned to make a concerted effort to pause daily and remember to invest in the people we work with and to consider the importance of the role of empathy for the lives they lead.

In summary, don’t miss the lesson even if you are in a less-than-ideal season of your career. I have been fortunate to have wonderful bosses, mentors, and colleagues, some of whom helped me to survive the worst boss ever. And even though much time has passed since I sat in one of those tenuous, unpredictable meetings, I can tell you that I continue to draw and learn from those experiences. I hope you will, too.

Sidenote: If you think you might be the worst boss someone has ever had, try to consider what it would be like to be on the other side of the desk from you. It’s not too late to change your management style, and it can begin today.