In my early years working in an office I had the misfortune to work for a manager who was everything you didn’t want him to be. He was dull, petty, spiteful; if he picked you up on a mistake, and in my case, that was all too often, he’d lecture you at length, making it clear how useless you were and how you’d never amount to anything. It got really bad when he was driving me to an inspection visit, when I was a captive audience and he would drone on the whole journey about everything that was wrong with me. I learned a lot about self control. I survived, but sadly others didn’t and had to leave to preserve their sanity. I met with an old colleague last year who still carries the scars.
Looking back though, I learned much more from him than any of the other managers I worked for; many of them good people, good at their job, wanting to bring out the best in their team. You could say he was an outstanding ‘anti-mentor’, shaping my leadership style and my values. In almost every situation I would train myself to do the opposite of what my horrible manager would have done.
Overall this has been a good thing. Those hundreds of people who worked for me over the years will have their own judgement of course, but I always tried to treat people as human beings with their own strengths and frailties, even when I had to discipline, demote or even sack them.
But, and here’s the rub: there are dangers. Using someone in this way whose leadership style is diametrically opposed to your values and practises can have unintended and adverse consequences; you can end up over compensating. I’ve probably done this all too often. It’s good to be generous and kind when someone’s having a tough time. Individuals are important, but so is the team. If the team is damaged by my over generous tendencies everyone might end up worse off.
The last time I did this, I leaned over backwards to support someone who was seriously ill, overlooking ongoing performance issues. A closer look would have revealed that the business was being systematically and deliberately destroyed, threatening all our livelihoods.
I talk to many leaders who’ve been too nice because of their ‘anti-mentor’ horrible leader. As a result they go the other way, avoiding that tough conversation, not firing people who should have gone long ago.
These days I’ve pretty much given up on leading anyone, (Anita, sometimes maybe; Millie, when it suits). The question I ask my gentle readers is ‘ thinking about the worst boss you ever had, are you knowingly, or unknowingly, reacting to your experience with this person, and are you helping or hurting your team?
I think I need to end on one of John Birch’s gentle prayers
Lord, may we look at others as if through your eyes; less judging, more loving and seeing them, like us, as not perfect or finished, but as a work in progress that will be completed in due time, by your hands.