20 Apr Bad Boss Epidemic
We have a leadership crisis.
The Global Leadership Forum survey ‘sounds the siren’ with 86% raising their hand to this fact. We don’t have to look far to see examples of poor leadership — bad bosses.
Through 5 decades of taking trips around the sun, I’ve been fortunate to experience some of life’s great moments. My five loving adult kids and soul-centered wife cause me to pause sometimes and look in from the outside thinking, “how did that happen for me?” I’ve had so many ventures and journeys that I couldn’t have orchestrated; sports championships, business success, business failure, coaching, inventing and launching products, concepts and companies.
I was 40 years old when I landed in my first large corporation through an acquisition. After a couple decades of professional experience and entrepreneurship, this was the first time an org-chart mattered. The scenario was a 4-company roll-up, so organizational design, operating models, culture alignment and formal change management was necessary. That’s a lot of stuff going on and it was chaotic, yet not terribly difficult. Those big corporate concepts that people build careers around are just processes – a list of things to get done, tasks, timelines, measures – like remodeling a kitchen. The hard part was leading people through transformation. Lives were upended, and emotions spiked.
Enter good-boss one.
Working for a boss that had extensive global experience and a perspective on priorities led everyone to bring their genuine self forward and perform against the outcomes more than the processes. The turmoil people were experiencing was respected and understood, yet the focus was on navigating through it rather than getting stuck in it. Awareness of what was happening upstream and downstream was communicated openly with appropriate detail, allowing each of us with responsibility for others to keep it real and keep our focus forward.
In contrast, the bad-bosses popped up like weeds in the garden. You can imagine, with a mash-up of 4 companies, there were more ‘bosses’ than needed – the territorial combat ensued. Witnessing the self-preservation and ready sacrifice of others was a real lesson. Never will I use the ego-ignorant phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s just business,” because the situation is always personal to the one being eliminated or forced to change their position.
Behaviors of the bad-boss
It’s a long list, but let’s look at the stuff that heightens under pressure, which is bad behavior #1 – self-preservation under pressure. Any utterance of ‘victim’ statements is unacceptable for a leader. “Their fault; they don’t know what they’re doing; it’s not fair; my people (this one kills me, so insidious); my clients” (another big one – clients are managed, not owned).
Bad behavior #2: Insecurity leading to politics. This one looks normal; the leader is simply “touching base” with people. You’ll notice that a clique starts to form and realize the person is rallying constituents to their “cause.” Natural, right? Perhaps, but this is selfish behavior, using influence to manipulate others for pain relief of personal insecurity, void of empathy for what might be the best situation and outcome for the that person. Again, it is personal, but as a leader it is the interests of others first – that is part of the deal.
#3 is sabotage. The poor proverbial bus driver — there are so many bodies being tossed under the bus it’s like navigating a mine field. No one is safe from this bad behavior. It spills over to clients, other biz units, finance, HR – everywhere. People get hurt; professionally, financially, emotionally – all caused by adults having adolescent tantrums – driven by #1 and #2. The good boss does not do this – unfortunately so many bosses do.
Recently I was consulting a with a company and the owner and close leadership team did this habitually, it was standard. Obviously, these few leaders simply couldn’t find enough clones of themselves, so everyone was dispensable. What they didn’t pause to realize is that they did it to each other – as an outsider, I got the earful. It was a short engagement.
Are We Prepared for ‘What Lies Ahead?
Transformation is happening.
We can hold our denial to whatever degree required for comfort, but change is happening at an accelerated speed and realities of “what’s next” created by continued shifts through technology, invention and further globalization are going to cause discomfort. Pressure will rise, and we are not preparing people and people-leaders (bosses) to cope, much less lead through transformation.
The right discussions are surfacing – leading with empathy (Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella), major shifts in learning platforms, and a movement in focusing on the neuroscience of being human, emotional intelligence and awareness.
Even with these influences coming forward, there is still an enormous amount of people and companies operating with the “dog-eat-dog” machismo of centuries past. They refer to people skills as soft skills – they take great pride in conquering and power.
We face the transformation from outside pressures caused by disruptive business models and exploding technological advances and the early movement to humanize the business landscape and shift the power away from narcissistic leadership practices. People are going to feel it from multiple areas and preparation is required. One thing is for sure, business as usual is gone.
A half decade had past before I bumped into good-boss two. What made him stand out was, knowledge, strength of character and integrity. He treated people equally with respect. He motivated, coached and assisted in each person achievement and growth. He turned a fledgling business around and was driving a vision of success.
Then the board decided it was time for a new CEO. Good-boss two stood on his principles and beliefs, kept his integrity intact and was removed for not bending to the disastrous plan that was about to ensue. He continues to do well in business, leading with wisdom and care.
And the 1/2?
Also a part of the scene above, she was inserted near the end of good-boss #2’s tenure and was good boss #3 until the old-school “smash and grab” CEO and team entered the picture. She flipped; became a different person. This amazed me, even at this stage, having experienced so much, I hadn’t witnessed a person morphing into a different person to appease, (self-preserve, politicize and sabotage) in moment’s time. It happened; so she became the 1/2.
2.5 of 12 good bosses is a pretty pathetic percentage, however it does reflect the reality of our current climate. All these people were trained and mentored to some degree. Many of them are very accomplished business producers. They just weren’t very good people.
Our challenge – our greatest opportunity is teaching great business skills and even better people skills. There is very little material to draw from over the past couple centuries for “good-people” development in business. There were historic periods of these ideals in earlier centuries, and it is perhaps time we step back and assess the dramatic changes we face in the near term and shift our learning and development focus on people development, not org development and process development – human development.
The next generation of leaders deserve our reflection on the context of our experiences. They deserve truth with some humility about the realities of current state. We can help them become aware of the commonality of ruthless business philosophies, which aren’t going away. Acknowledging that there is choice – alternative paths – and allow them to understand and choose. Clarifying the distinct options is a far better than trying to meld old and new together, blending them into an “ok,” mediocre and limiting state.
To develop better leaders, avert the crisis ahead, we can define and clearly separate the good and the bad, providing the gift of educating and developing the human-centered, empowering practices that will successfully navigate through transformation.