Over the course of a career, we work with dozens of bosses. We often look at them with a sense of wonderment. We believe they have magical powers marked by titles and the ability to shape our professional destiny. It follows that our experiences with bosses become memorable. More than that, they help form the foundation of who we become as leaders.

Most of us are grateful to the bosses that propped us up, told us we were better than we thought, had our backs in tight situations, consistently did what they said they would do, and connected with us as individuals. The bosses who coached, mentored, and urged us toward personal growth earned our respect. I have a long list of such bosses to whom I’m grateful.

But there are also bosses we didn’t hold in such high regard as we experienced them. It is only after the fact, sometimes months or years later, that we allow ourselves to consider the contribution these bosses had to who we became as leaders.

Some examples:

— I was present when a boss threw a chair across the room at a project manager and narrowly missed. Happily, there was no second attempt to improve his accuracy.

— Executives who spend time counting floor-to-ceiling windows in offices to make sure the wrong people don’t have too many.

— Bosses who reduce employees to tears with profanity-laced tirades followed by “I’m sorry.” Until the next time.

— Those who hide bad news from their employees until it is too late to react and get out of the situation.

— An executive at a competitor who shut the blinds turned off his lights and hid under his desk while HR fired most of the people on his team. His turn came a few months later.

— A boss that didn’t know employee names sitting fifty feet from his office.

In the heat of the moment, we lack the perspective that time and distance eventually provide. We don’t always see the lessons or grasp how those experiences impact our leadership habits.

When we want to strengthen our heart and lungs, we run, bike, or swim. When we want to improve our body, we endure resistance training. Our physical strength expands as we demand more of our bodies.

The same thing happens with our leadership abilities. Presented with challenges that create dissonance and discomfort, we put in the effort and expand our ability to handle more complex situations in the future. Developing our toolkit increases our ability to support and influence our teams.

Some Lessons Learned

1. Our styles under stress vary widely. Some of us wear our emotions on our sleeves, and others display a level of monk-like equanimity that leaves those of us in the first category in awe. Recognizing, controlling, and channeling our emotions lead to better outcomes.

2. Reverse role models are valuable. Those of us with older siblings had at least two advantages growing up. First, we could learn from their mistakes and tell ourselves, “Let’s not try that one.” Second, by the time we reached adolescence, our worn-out parents allowed us to get away with more. Hypothetically, of course.

3. When we encounter these situations, we tend to react in one of two ways — we become stronger, or experience learned helplessness. In the former, we become leaders determined to do things differently to serve the team and company. In the latter, we struggle to lead ourselves and make decisions because we have not exercised our decision-making muscles and increased our resilience.

4. Commitment wins over vicious compliance. Employees reward us with their commitment only after they feel safe, trust their leaders, and feel like they are part of a worthwhile mission. Vicious compliance may get things done today, but it creates a toxic environment that destroys teams and companies over time.

5. Bullying behavior exists in companies and life. It shows up due to insecurity and scarcity. Our survival instincts drive us to move away from this behavior. If you decide to stay and help and believe you have the coaching skills to assist, a transformation is sometimes possible. Establishing rapport, holding up a mirror, and not making the other person wrong, are a few steps to start. Bullying behavior often leads to feelings of shame, so it’s important to help a person feel safe while not letting them off the hook for their behavior. The goal is to help create more resourceful behavior and not allow “I’m sorry” to be the last word. In bullying situations, targets don’t want to hear an apology; they want to experience different conduct. Controlling our behavior on this side of the ‘I’m sorry’ is the key to personal effectiveness.

6. All leaders are in the people business. Learning the first names of employees is a simple but powerful way to connect. It lets people know you cared enough to learn their name, sure, but also that your messages merit their attention. Ideally, over time, it also opens the door to earning their trust.

Activating Questions

As with all experiences, we have the freedom to choose what each means to us. Take the time you need to shake off the negative feelings from an encounter with a challenging boss and ask yourself:

1. What else could this mean? Why is he behaving this way?

2. What can I do to help this leader? What can I do to help the team?

3. How can this experience serve me?

4. What am I prepared to do to make things the way I want them? What am I willing to stop doing to make things the way I want them?

5. Do I exhibit some of these counterproductive behaviors? If so, what do I need to do differently next time?

6. How has this experience made me stronger?

7. What are the lessons I can share with others to help them on their leadership journey?

Takeaway: It’s easy for us to have a bad experience, become the victim, and make the offending person the villain.
But lessons are always available to us once we start asking better questions and remain open to learning.
All leaders struggle during their journey, and it’s a powerful gift to experience those who challenge us along with those that help us through the challenges.

Call to Action

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