Why you can trust poor leaders to be sound teachers

Macho, insensitive bosses share certain characteristics. Their behavior is arrogant, quick-tempered and controlling. Their motives are typically selfish and manipulative. They show little concern for others and few signs of understanding why others don’t trust them. Most of all, they are quite unaware of their failings and the impact they have on their subordinates. No only do they see no need to change, they often make their high-handed behavior a source of pride.

That’s why you can trust them to be some of your best teachers about productivity and success.

Before you decide that I’ve lost my mind, I’ll explain.

Most human beings are amazingly consistent in the way they behave. That’s why we can say of some action, “That isn’t like you,” or “It’s so out of character.” Without that consistency, such a remark would be pointless. And amongst the most consistent groups of all are those who spend least time in any kind of introspection: the extreme extroverts, the loud, slap-you-on-the-back hearty types, the arrogant, the pompous, the selfish and the self-centered — the people who, if they become bosses, are most likely to prove to be bad ones.

Powerful lessons from powerful (and hopelessly unaware) people

Bad bosses can become useful teachers precisely because their behavior tends to be so consistently bad. You can be fairly sure of their motives and intentions, which allows you to compare cause (what they did and probably why they did it) with effect (how it turned out).

The pompous boss, convinced of her superiority and the rightness of whatever she does; the lazy boss, sure that status confers the right to live off other people’s efforts; the rigid, controlling boss, firm in his belief that all subordinates are incompetent without his oversight; all of these (and many more) hold to their actions so tenaciously — and are so blind to what they are doing — that they will provide some of the best lessons in what not to do that you will ever be offered.

Here are seven of the lessons you might come across, beginning with productivity:

  • See how much effort bad bosses have to use to make things happen their way; effort that would be unnecessary if they behaved better — all that time spent micro-managing and checking; all the ranting and raving to reduce others to obedience; all the lies and stratagems needed to manipulate others instead of asking them openly.
  • See how others react to them; how people become adept at sabotaging their efforts and undermining their success. Even when they dare not oppose the boss openly, subordinates will show great ingenuity in finding other ways to frustrate them.
  • Look at the effect bad bosses have on trust — how this type of behavior ruins relationships with customers as well as employees. Once discovered, as it always is in the end, cynical manipulation renders future trust impossible too.
  • What about the impact on motivation? Consider how you feel if you find yourself going along with the boss’s bad behavior. Do you feel motivated or depressed? Does it make you want to exert yourself or limit your output to no more than is needed to preserve your safety and career prospects?
  • Rigidity next. Most macho bosses see changing a poor decision as an unacceptable sign of weakness. How many times have you seen a bad leader produce disaster from what could have been a triumph, simply because he or she refused to admit to — and change — a bad decision?
  • Take some time to consider what survival in the lifestyle of a bad boss demands. Is that how you would be willing to live? Are the rewards they get worth what they have to do to get them?
  • Most important, observe the way bad bosses are regarded by those above them. Are they genuinely fooling the top dogs about their weaknesses? Or are those executives simply playing the same game — but far better — manipulating middle and junior managers to enhance their own positions, then throwing them to the wolves when they become too much of an embarrassment?

I’m sure you can think of many more situations where a bad boss has taught you a valuable lesson. Observing and learning from others’ mistakes is as important as learning from your own — and a good deal less painful.

Besides, the macho tough guys can never admit to being wrong. They can’t learn from their own mistakes. Since you can, it’s an advantage you can use for all it’s worth.

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