Few things incite a frothing, wild-eyed rage like asking people to talk about bad bosses. People aren’t just annoyed by poor leadership—they sputter and snarl as they describe their superiors, lusting for the chance to hit that bad boss with a perfect, withering insult. Or perhaps a truck.
It’s a little scary, then, to realize that we’re all likely to occupy a leadership role, from motherhood to mogulhood, at some point in our lives. When we blow it, our imperfections will be magnified by our authority. Leadership is simply too complex to do perfectly. I believe that the key to being a better boss lies in accepting that fact. Ineffective leaders expect their role to be easy and think—no matter what—that they’re doing the job just right. Although good leaders often begin with similar expectations, convinced they’re natural-born chieftains, they soon run smack-dab into a little thing called Monday morning. The best leaders let go of the fantasy and become fully present and responsive to the complexities of each new situation. They’re the ones—the few, the proud, the downright worshipped—who earn their followers’ respect. To become one of them, you need to turn bad-boss behaviors on their head to find your way toward good-boss techniques.
The View from Below
Bad-boss self-concept: As a leader, I’ll be a higher-up.
Good-boss self-concept: As a leader, I’ll have to go lower down.
The bad-boss tales I’ve heard include many stories of managers demanding the undoable, responding to objections by simply reiterating that it had to be done. This creates nothing but hostility. “If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them,” said the philosopher Lao-tzu (who is my favorite management consultant, despite having been dead for centuries). That doesn’t mean you become a slave to your followers’ whims. Great bosses acknowledge their own ignorance and ask questions of everyone to gain a better grasp of two important things: What’s going on? What needs to be done?
Eliminating Moving Targets
Bad-boss target setting: Now that I’m the boss, I give orders to others.
Good-boss target setting: Now that I’m the boss, I bring order to what others do.
Many people thrill to giving orders or critiques, but have unclear, uninformed or ambivalent ideas about what they’re actually trying to accomplish—that is, they know what they want this second, but the big picture is as fuzzy as a winter mink. Leading well means forming a crystal clear image of what must happen and communicating that precisely. After giving an assignment, ask that person to describe the task in their own words. If they can’t, or if the account they give doesn’t match what you were trying to convey, you need to try a new tack. The first step could be as easy as clarifying your directives—or you might have to rethink your org chart and who reports to whom.
Where We Go Wrong
Bad-boss position on feedback: Now everyone must tell me when I’m right.
Good-boss position on feedback: Now everyone must tell me when I’m wrong.
Most humans go through the world trying to elicit validation. Al Preble, a leadership consultant for Cambridge Leadership Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says this isn’t the way to go. The most powerful way for leaders to communicate, he believes, is to use just three simple steps. When a problem arises:
- Clearly tell your subordinate what you really think
- Describe the facts that led you to this opinion
- Ask to be disconfirmed; in other words, honestly request that people tell you where you’re wrong.
Taking the Hit
Bad-boss protection strategy: As a boss, I’ll be protected from taking blame.
Good-boss protection strategy: As a boss, I’ll protect others by taking blame.
The successful bosses I interviewed emphasized that a good leader helps her followers feel safe from the dangers that come from both inside and outside the organization. An incompetent supervisor, on the other hand, feels that the best way to secure her position is to appear faultless, and works mightily to make clear who fouled up or even to lay blame on a scapegoat. But that behavior turns people into twitchy, record-keeping, blame-tallying masses of ectoplasm.
Once More into the Breach
Bad-boss problem solving: Being the boss means I can avoid problems.
Good-boss problem solving: Being the boss means I must seek out problems.
You can tell if you’re making mistakes as a leader, because things go wrong—not just one catastrophic computer snafu but repeated errors. Bad bosses turn away from these realities. They don’t discuss problems; they just hunker down and hope the issue will go away. It won’t. Untreated, a minor concern becomes a major issue becomes a catastrophe.
This is the core of good leadership, whether you’re managing a corporation, your immediate family, or just your own life. Lao-tzu puts it this way: “When [the Master] runs into a difficulty, she stops and gives herself to it. She doesn’t cling to her own comfort; thus problems are no problem for her.” Embracing the fact that you’ll encounter many obstacles—and that this is all right—allows you to understand, listen, give clear instructions, invite negative feedback and protect those you lead. You’ll be comfortable with leadership, even when it’s uncomfortable. And that will make you an easy act to follow.