A bad boss creates more bad bosses. Let me give you an example.
I started in manufacturing very young, getting my first job in the trades when I was sixteen. Over time, at different places, I was privileged to have some of the finest mentors imaginable.
These men were savants that spoon-fed me knowledge. They were eminently patient, and I absorbed the information like a sponge. I desired to be like them — the omniscient elders with the best spots at the workbench. They were like the monks and I was the wide-eyed initiate.
Everyone around me was supportive — people that engaged in their jobs with pride, craftsmanship and a spirit of comradery. I flourished, and by twenty I was running shifts. One boss said, “I trust you, realize you are here so I don’t have to be.” I thrived on self-reliance, and learned how to make quick decisions.
At this point in my life I was a pretty well-adjusted, easy-going guy. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time. Always having a strong sense of adventure, in my mid-twenties, I left the safety of the cloister.
When I got my first job in the big leagues at a vast manufacturing company, I was viewed as a scrappy young guy with something to prove. But in reality I was fresh grist for the mill. By the way, never interview for a job on a Sunday when there is no one there to gauge who you will be working with. How naïve of me.
Anyway, it was the ‘90s, but in this heavy manufacturing plant, management techniques had not evolved much from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Control through fear and intimidation was the only method. A real biblical fire and brimstone place, like Dante’s Inferno.
I had the technical chops and nerve but still lacked maturity and wisdom. I was reactive with little foresight. I had never dealt with such combative employees before and quickly realized I was out of my depth.
I had to either sink or swim. My new boss told me, “You have the toughest crew in the plant. Within your first couple of weeks you need to find a reason to make an example of someone. Let them hear you yell. You need to make them fear you!”
I was still young and impressionable. I was also committed and eager to please, so against my nature, I obliged and adapted. I was soon absorbed. I became the hammer. I was an attack dog ready to pounce on the slightest infraction. I stomped around the place like a prison camp commandant. This brought more stress, more tests and more rage to the place.
No one reined me in; upper management may have been either afraid or they just did not care. In many ways they encouraged my behavior. After all, I did produce for them. They just wanted the numbers. They even told me volume washes away sins. So, I continued unrestrained.
I thought this is how the real world operates and I was making a lot of money doing it. In my mind my behavior was actually being rewarded!
I became consumed with creating and protecting my own reputation. Self-confidence quickly became hubris. I considered myself superior and belittled those around me, above and below. I was combative and territorial in the extreme and unable to cope with criticism.
I realized I could influence everyone’s mood. I could project anger and tension from across the room. I actually thought it was cool.
I developed an inflated sense of self and became increasingly dictatorial. I let my emotions rule my actions. During conversation, I would not listen but would merely wait to respond. I became a legend in my own mind and the very definition of narcissism.
Understand, these were mean and bitter people I was dealing with. While I thought I had risen to the occasion, I had actually sunk to their level. The stress was incredible, and it was taking years off my life while affecting everyone around me.
I was not always able to detach myself from my job. So when I got home it was causing damage. I sensed the changes and so did my wife. She was a saint and would ask, “Where is the sweet guy I married?” I decided to resign.
I needed to evaluate. Having gone to the extreme, I sought to pull back and find balance. I recognized my shortcomings and began to study the behavioral aspects of human nature and leadership. I found finesse to be a more useful tool than fire and adopted a more holistic approach to management.
I had an epiphany, or as alcoholics call it, “a moment of clarity.” I needed to combat my own insecurities, learn to be a better listener, become more empathetic and to understand that I certainly did not know it all.
Know thyself. Still a work in progress, for years I employed rather harsh tactics in my efforts at reform, but I always did my best to practice proportionality and have the punishment fit the crime.
Now, I look back with some regret. I think of some professional relationships I had sabotaged along with the opportunities lost. You see, it is not the situation but how you handle it.
I was suddenly aware that I had dishonored my mentors who thought so highly of me. Ouch! Today, I aspire to be the type of boss they had been, the positive influence that fights for a just and greater good. I still have a bit of an edge, but I now it is used appropriately.
Take this as a cautionary tale. While I am extremely grateful for the experiences and for the people who helped me realize the error of my ways, all of this chaos could have been avoided.
Take great care with how you select and develop leaders and do not force them into a mold. Also, resist the temptation to throw them in and let them fend for themselves. Remember, you govern the change curve. Devise a plan with different, measured levels of exposure and responsibilities.
Promote from within when possible. At least you know their deficiencies and can plan accordingly. However, recognize the obstacles a candidate may encounter supervising former peers, so back them up.
If you do have to go outside the company, be doubly thorough in psychological vetting, preparation and support. Be upfront and truthful in your appraisal of the challenges they will face and the potential adverse effects on their psyche. How do they handle adversity? You want drivers, but choose people who possess the ability to self-evaluate and exercise restraint.
Realize you can easily distort the same personality traits you seek to enhance. If unchecked, drive can devolve into cruelty. Don’t suppress their passion, but teach leaders to channel it properly. Coach in the truest sense of the word and explain your reasoning. Don’t turn loyalty into a weapon and never send them to do something you wouldn’t do.
Steer clear of manipulation. Utilize the trusting gleam in their eyes without betraying it. Evaluate yourself and the impressions you are creating. Understand the impact of your words and influence. Think about how you are shaping their perspectives and boundaries. We are all affected by our environment or is it nature over nurture?
Don’t change a fresh supervisor’s nature; you never know what will come of it. Look for negative tendencies in how they handle authority and teach them to be humble. Recognize the stress of their obligations at work and at home and counsel as necessary. Make it your responsibility.
I am reminded of a line in a song by The Who, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Recognize that what worked for you may not work for them. Within reason, allow them to develop a style they are comfortable with and monitor their progress. Good Luck!