5 Things A Bad Boss Can Teach You About Leadership

I once took a leadership development workshop held by a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel. He started out by asking the audience a relatively simple question: “What makes a good leader?”

If you have ever sat in a silent presentation and felt those awkward five seconds after the speaker asks a question no one wants to answer, then you know how that went. After a beats, a few polite suggestions came in: “Someone with a vision?” “Being extroverted?”

He nodded and let the mumbling die out. Then he asked the right question: “Okay, what makes someone a bad leader?”

“Being a bully!” “Micromanaging!” “Being unkind!” The words were tumbling out of everyone’s mouths so quickly that it was tough to catch every response.

We may not always know what we like about our bosses, but we definitely know what we dislike. I have worked under a lot of different leaders. Some were good, some were bad. Some were hands-on, some preferred to let me do my own thing. If I looked closely, though, the lessons were always there.

Here are five common blunders that leaders make and you how can turn their mistakes into a useful lesson.

Your Boss Takes Credit For The Work You Have Done

You spent hours hard at work on a project, only to hear your boss talk about it like it’s his own victory. Your name doesn’t even come up. You feel outraged and more than a little betrayed.

Lesson: Give credit where credit is due. So what if you oversaw the project? You can claim victory while still remembering to pass on kind words about the colleague who did the hard work to make it possible. Sure, maybe it was your vision, but you weren’t a team of one.

Your Boss Only Ever Gives You Negative Feedback

Your heart sinks as your manager approaches your desk. You cringe when you see her name in your inbox. It seems like every time she opens her mouth to speak to you, it’s some sort of criticism.

Lesson: “Troubleshooting mode,” as I like to call it, is an easy trap to fall into for new leaders. You want your team’s work to be strong, so you prod around until you find the weak spots, and the weak spots only.

When you’re taking your red pen to someone’s work, don’t forget to mention what was strong about it.  It’s important to let others know what they’re doing right, too.

Your Boss Never Goes To Bat For You

Someone senior from another department just sent you a blistering email full of scathing negative feedback about your project and copies your boss. He stops by your desk to complain about how unfair it is, but leaves you to fend for yourself.

Lesson: It’s your boss’s job to stand up for you, just like it’s your job to stand up for the people you manage. It’s not fair for credit to always flow up the chain of command (see #1), and it’s not fair for blame to always flow down.

Your Boss Never Tells You The “Why” Of What You’re Doing

Your boss often gives you assignments the same way your parents used to make you clean your room—imperative statements without an explanation why. The “because I said so,” however, is merely implied.

Lesson: Vague instructions lead to work that misses the mark—partially because the worker probably has no idea what the mark is.  Always be sure that your team knows what the end goal is. With a better understanding of purpose, the result will always be stronger.

Your Boss Doesn’t Treat You With Basic Politeness And Respect

She yells at you, mocks you, or cuts you down in a way that reminds you of bullies from your school days.

Lesson: First of all, if you’re on the receiving end of this behavior at work, take action or find a new job. No one deserves to feel bullied at work.

On the other side of the table: are you finding yourself raising your voice to your colleagues, especially ones you manage? Think long and hard about why you’re responding that way, and whether you’re creating a productive work environment (spoiler: you’re not). If you can’t find a peaceful and kind way to address the problem, it may be time to take it to HR or consider if the employee is the right fit for your team.

When your boss lets you down…

After that workshop, I found myself thinking, “I’ll never do that to someone else,” every time someone failed me in some way. Not only has that knowledge guided me as a manager, it’s taken the edge off some difficult moments.

The next time a leader falls short, try to find the parable in the story. Remember, managers are people too and you may be in his or her shoes someday.


Heather DeVaney Hughes is a Marketing Communications Manager at an integrated marketing agency in Atlanta. She has written content for a broad range of organizations: speeches for generals, long-form opinion pieces for B2B brands, and social media content for children’s museums, just to name a few. Find her online at www.heatherdevaneyhughes.com, or on Twitter at @heatherddhughes