How to avoid becoming an awful boss

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Most of the nicknames we had for my worst boss ever are not suitable for a workplace-friendly blog. Most of the time, we referred to him by the initials “SA,” which stood for “Sir Awful.” Sometimes the people who worked for him would substitute another A-word for “awful.”

I hardly ever think about him anymore because I didn’t learn anything from him except an array of things not to do. But I was reminded of SA when I read Julian Birkinshaw’s excellent post, “Management: How Hard Can It Be?” Here’s the money quote.

“Everyone remembers an awful boss, yet nobody sets out to be loathed by their staff. Most of us like to imagine we’d be a great boss – until we find ourselves in the role and come up against difficulties. Can management really be such a challenge?”

The short answer to that question is, “Yes!”

It’s not a challenge because the individual things that you must do are so hard to understand, or execute. It’s a challenge because there are lots of moving parts and they all interact with each other. It’s a challenge because an awful lot of the time, there’s no right answer, just a collection of choices, each one of which has different tradeoffs. And it’s a challenge because every situation is different.

You may have a lot of different titles if you’re responsible for performance of the group. Your people might call you a boss, and your title might be something like Crew Chief or Team Leader. Maybe you’re the Vice President of Marketing or the shop supervisor. Whatever it is, you’re responsible for the performance of the group and for caring for the members of the group. It’s your job, so you don’t have any choice about whether or not to do it. The only choice you have is about how you can do it well and better. Here are five things you can do to get better.


A staggering percentage of people who become responsible for the performance of the group get absolutely no training in how to do that work well. The ones that do tend to get training that ineffective because it covers a huge amount of material in a classroom setting. Training can help you, but it’s more likely to help you if you can turn it into small bites to help you with specific issues.

Coaches and Mentors

Coaches and mentors can help you work through specific issues and figure out how to face specific challenges. If you’re lucky, your boss will be someone who sees coaching as part of his or her role. If you’re lucky, your company will engage a professional coach to work with you. If you’re lucky, you’ll wind up with a mentor or two, or three, that help you get the best out of yourself.


Reading can help you profit from other peoples’ experience. You can learn about the art of leading people and the tricks of your particular trade. Read blog posts and magazine articles. Read books, not just business books but also history, biography, and fiction.


Reflection is how you wring the most out of your experience and use it to make tomorrow better. Set aside a little time every day and every week to think about what you’ve done well, what you could do better, and how you’ll do things next time. Set aside some time after every significant project or event to think about what went well and what went wrong, and how the next time you’ll do it better.

Progress in Small Doses

Even in your crazy world, try to do one thing a little better every day. Days of progress strung together make big improvements seem natural and almost easy. I’ve written a book to help you with that. It’s called Become a Better Boss One Tip at A Time.

Bottom Line

The best way to avoid becoming a bad boss by default is to work intentionally at becoming a great one. Get the training you need. Find mentors and coaches who will help you. Read. Reflect and critique and figure out what to do better. Try to do one thing a little better every day.

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