What I learned and didn’t learn from my worst boss ever

  |   Leadership Print Friendly and PDF

I met my worst boss ever (WBE) when I was still a management trainee. That was the day we had our first confrontation.

I was working in one of my company’s service centers, several hundred miles from our home office. WBE was visiting to “inspect” our facility and evaluate my boss on the way the center ran.

He strutted around the place finding things wrong. I asked the center manager, who was my boss, what we should do. His response: “Just keep your head down.” I tried that for a while.

WBE was a clean desk freak and he started loudly reprimanding the secretary my boss and I shared because her desktop was cluttered. He went on louder and more abusively and, finally, I couldn’t keep my head down anymore. I was young and I’d done my time in the Marines, and that kind of thing simply wasn’t acceptable. So, I called him on it.

He whirled around and the first words out of his mouth were “Don’t ever defy me!”

I don’t remember exactly how we got that settled down but later that evening WBE took my boss and me out for dinner. That was an occasion for him to tell us what a wonderful fellow he was, to give me a long lecture on never defying him, show his benevolent side by letting me keep my job, and sharing his success secrets. As I recall it, he was successful, at least in his mind, because he wore a thin watch and patent leather shoes.

Thankfully the next day WBE went on to abuse the people at another center. I didn’t see him again until I was promoted to manage my own center. It was smaller than the one where I’d started as a management trainee, and it required a move to New England.

That gave me the opportunity to spend a couple of days with WBE, the man who was now my direct boss. It had been over a year since our first meeting, and he hadn’t changed much. He still belittled people in public. He still shared those success secrets at dinner.

About a year later, my first boss had a heart attack and the company sent me to manage the larger service center while he recovered. I could only go home once a month and I’d be at the larger center for a couple of months until my former boss could resume his duties.

My son became ill right after I’d left for my temporary assignment. When I came home at the end of the first month, he was still sick, and our pediatrician couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. About two weeks into the next month, my wife called and told me that they were taking my son to Boston Children’s Hospital. I told her I’d catch the next plane home. Then I called my boss.

If I was hoping for support, I didn’t get it. Instead, I heard about how I couldn’t really do anything to make my son better and how the company needed me where I was. I responded that I could support my wife and son and be there if I was needed for anything and it was what I felt I had to do. The last words I heard from my boss were, “Don’t be stupid. This could cost you your job.” I suggested he do something biologically impossible and hung up. Then I caught a plane home. I knew I’d made the right choice when I walked into my son’s hospital room and saw him stand up in his crib and smile. But I didn’t know if I still had a job.

The men and women at Boston Children’s got things right inside my son. WBE made me beg for my job. I thought about quitting but I couldn’t afford to quit without another job. I started looking for another job right way. As it turned out, WBE would get fired, but that’s a story for another blog post.

What I Learned from My Worst Boss Ever

I learned a lot from my awful boss. Most of what I learned were things that I already knew intellectually but didn’t get emotionally. I saw the toxic effect of publicly reprimanding people. I learned how people felt about you if you paraded around like you were important. Those were great lessons about what not to do.

I was lucky. After serving as a Marine, I had a pretty good idea about what good leadership looked like. I knew what I was seeing wasn’t good leadership, just a series of examples of what not to do. If I had been younger, or less experienced, though, I might have followed his awful example.

I learned what not to do from my truly awful boss. But there’s a lot I didn’t learn.

What I Didn’t Learn from My Worst Boss Ever

The problem with learning from an awful boss is that you can only learn what not to do. You don’t learn what you ought to do instead. Sure, you learn, viscerally, that reprimanding people loudly and in public makes them feel awful. What you don’t learn is how to deal with a performance issue in the right way.

That’s the problem with all negative examples. You learn what not to do but you don’t learn what to do instead.

Bottom Line

Working for an awful boss can give you powerful, emotional lessons in what not to do. No matter how powerful those lessons are, though, you need other lessons to learn how to do things better. Fortunately, there are some books that will help.

Reading Suggestions

My worst boss ever was a prime example of what my friend Bob Sutton refers to as an “asshole.” Bob’s written some books that will help you. His book, The No Asshole Rule, has helped people understand the phenomenon. His newest book, The Asshole Survival Guide, is the book I wish I’d had back when I had my worst boss ever. I managed to survive, but sometimes I think I was just lucky.

If you really want to know the positives about what to do as a boss, Bob Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss should be on your shelf where you can reach it easily. Here are other books that you may find helpful.

The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

The New One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader by Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback

My ebook, Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

KBC   |   07 Sep 2017   |   Reply

Thanks for the book recommendations and thanks for verbalizing what happens after surviving a WBE. Until now,I couldn’t explain anything more than the “what not to do.”

Wally Bock   |   08 Sep 2017   |   Reply

Thanks so much for those kind words and for adding to the conversation.

herbert a melendez   |   03 Jul 2019   |   Reply

Great blog, I remember going into a Taco Bell years ago and the manager started yelling at the cashier in front of the entire restaurant, I could not contain myself and told her how bad of a manager she was and how she should have call the employee to her office, and then walk out the restaurant while promising not to come back.
I do disagree with you in one aspect, no matter how bad of a boss someone is, there is still something positive we can learn from that person, after all they would not be in a leadership position if they don’t have some good skill. Once again thanks for sharing your experience.

Wally Bock   |   03 Jul 2019   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words, Herbert and for adding to the conversation. I agree with you in theory. We can learn something from anyone. And even the most ruthless dictators have had soft spots for little children or pets. As a practical matter though, it’s very hard to find those things in your average awful boss and you usually don’t want to spend time looking for it.