10 Leadership Lessons from Horrible Bosses

Coworkers having an intense conversation in a restaurant over paperwork
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I get a lot of emails from readers telling me about their horrible bosses and asking for advice on how to fix them. Unfortunately, the advice and coaching that I’ve been offering for more than 20 years is for managers that want to become better leaders. There’s not a lot you can do to fix a bad boss that isn’t interested in improving.

But – the good news is that we can still learn from those horrible bosses.

In order to make we are learning the right lessons, we need to know what great management and leadership should look like.

We can then use our experiences with our own managers to decide which behaviors we want to emulate and which we want to make sure we don’t repeat.

I call it the “George Costanza” approach to leadership development. There’s a scene from Seinfeld where George has an epiphany that everything he does is wrong, and from now on, he’s going to do the opposite of whatever he would normally do:

Elaine: Ah, George, you know, that woman just looked at you.

George: So what? What am I supposed to do?

Elaine: Go talk to her.

George: Elaine, bald men, with no jobs, and no money, who live with their parents, don't approach strange women.

Jerry: Well here's your chance to try the opposite. Instead of tuna salad and being intimidated by women, chicken salad and going right up to them.

George: Yeah, I should do the opposite, I should.

Jerry: If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

George: Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!

(He goes over to the woman)

George: Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice that you were looking in my direction.

Victoria: Oh, yes I was, you just ordered the same exact lunch as me.

(George takes a deep breath)

George: My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.

Victoria: I'm Victoria. Hi.

It’s a pretty simple technique – emulate the good ones and do the opposite of the bad ones.

Here’s a ten examples of “do the opposite” lessons I’ve learned from former horrible bosses:

1. The boss who never comes out of his/her office: the importance of being visible, communicating, connecting with your employees, and having regular one-on-one and team meetings.

2. The boss that plays obvious favorites: the importance knowing how to objectively assess performance, and basing rewards and recognition, assignments, and promotions on actual merit, not who sucks up the best.

3. The boss that never accepts responsibility for failure or mistakes: the importance of being accountable, accepting blame, not pointing fingers, and being a problem solver.

4. The boss who talked a good game, but couldn’t execute: the importance of paying attention to the details, planning, change management, project management, forecasting, and not overpromising.

5. The boss with a temper: the importance of staying calm under fire, not letting your emotions hijack your brain, and treating others with respect at all times.

6. The gossiping boss: the importance of discretion and confidentiality, not talking about other employees or peers, and not spreading rumors.

7. The “retired on the job” boss: the importance of always staying energetic, positive, competitive, and maintaining your physical fitness and appearance.

8. The know-it-all boss: the importance of genuine listening, being open to learning, not feeling compelled to “add value” to other’s ideas, and letting others discover things for themselves.

9. The unethical boss: the importance of always doing the right thing, even when no one’s looking. Instead of asking “Can I get away with it?”, or “Who’s going to know?”, ask “Would I be comfortable if my decision ended up published in the local/company newspaper”?

10. The “buzz kill” boss: the importance of being aware of the effect you have on your employees, though your actions, words, and especially your reactions to their suggestions, accomplishments, or concerns.

Leaders understand the importance of managing energy – leaving people feeling energized, not deflated.

How about you? What “do the opposite” lessons have you learned from a bad boss? Once you’ve identified those lessons, just follow the George Constanza rule, and do the opposite!