Bad Bosses Can Lead to Future CEO Wisdom

June 23, 2016


Most of us have experienced a bad boss once or twice in our careers. Getting away from those types of supervisors can be a major relief. But they can also be learning experiences, especially for those who go on to leadership positions. Knowing what not to do can serve a CEO well in terms of how he or she treats employees and clients.

Here’s a look at the effects of bad bosses, and how CEOs can use those lessons in their own leadership roles.

Think opposite

Working for a bad boss can be frustrating yet educational, as Erika Andersen explores in a story for Forbes. Andersen was planning on starting a new company, and so every time she witnessed “something short-sighted, small-minded, wrong-headed, controlling” from her supervisor, she would make a note to never behave that way. Seeing first-hand what not to do helped her realize the best way to be an effective leader.

“It was almost magical at times, the way it changed my mental and emotional state,” she writes. “It shifted me from frustration and anger about what he was doing, toward curiosity about how I could avoid doing the same thing in the future. Curiosity is a wonderful, positive state, full of synaptic firing and exploration. I sometimes actually found myself taking notes about how I would avoid making the mistakes and bad calls he was making.”

It’s not personal

When bosses unleash a blast of criticism — regardless of whether it’s warranted — some employees will inevitably take it as a personal attack. Learning how to see past that criticism will serve the employees well, especially those that go on to become business leaders. Jennifer Winter describes such a situation from her own personal history in a story for

“… After my boss was reaming me out for making a mistake I didn’t actually make, I realized that the title of manager did not equal infallibility,” she writes. “And, more importantly, that whatever he was saying had more to do with his performance than mine. From that point on, I always reminded myself that any sort of criticism in the office — from a boss or anyone else — should never be taken personally, if I could help it. Sure, sometimes criticism can be constructive, but other times it can be pretty destructive. And if you can learn to look at things objectively, rather than personally, it’s a lot easier to keep your emotions intact — and hopefully, learn from the experience.”

Examine the effort

When dealing with bad bosses, analyzing their effort might be more common when there’s a serious lack of it. A lazy leader is not going to be a successful one. But there’s another side to that, which can show how poor leadership skills and effort go together. As this story on points out, bosses that constantly push for their way may end up spinning their wheels.

“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 micromanaging 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.”

Speak up

When a supervisor is of the blowhard variety, it may cause some employees to be less vocal — don’t speak out of turn, don’t rock the boat, that kind of thing. In Winter’s case, an out-of-her-league boss ended up creating huge errors that then had to be fixed. Winter bit her tongue until she decided she had to speak up to avoid such situations.

“… Just because someone is in a position of authority doesn’t mean he or she knows everything,” she writes. “From that point forward, I stopped assuming the title ‘manager’ was equivalent to ‘all knowing.’ Whenever I thought my boss might benefit from my knowledge or expertise, I didn’t hesitate to offer up my thoughts on how we could approach a situation differently. After all, just because you’re a few rungs below your boss on the corporate ladder, that doesn’t mean you don’t have valuable insight to contribute.”

Make your desires clear

Everyone has ambition, but we cannot assume that bosses know what those ambitions are. If they are more focused on their own goals, they might never take the time to figure it out. Winter experienced a situation like this, as she details in her piece for She received a positive performance review, but not the promotion she desired. It wasn’t until she broke it to the boss at an after-work outing that he understood:

“He was shocked, and immediately asked me, ‘Well, why didn’t you say something?’ While it would be nice if all our bosses naturally recognized our talents and rewarded us accordingly, sometimes bosses — especially the crappy ones — need it spelled out for them. If you think you’re doing a bang-up job and deserve a raise, a promotion, or any sort of recognition, you need to be prepared to ask for it. Know your worth, be ready to make sure your boss knows it, too — and you’ll find your career a lot more fulfilling.”

Get tough

Criticism can be tough to take if it’s not presented in the right manner. As Andersen explains in her Forbes piece, she had a boss that unfortunately engaged in “negative, critical, insulting remarks.” For those who are sensitive (and Andersen notes she qualifies as such), approval and respect are the desired alternatives. The solution, she says, is recognizing that this negativity was more about the boss and his insecurities than it was about her: “He was saying critical things to me not because they were accurate, but because he felt compelled to be critical.” Andersen focused on her positive relationships rather than the toxic boss.

“I tried to spend as little time as possible talking about my boss with the people I loved — I didn’t want to chew up that precious time in the momentum of complaint — but really focused on doing and talking about things that we loved and that reminded me of all things I cherish. … It served as a daily cleansing — like washing his negativity off me with clear, fresh water.”

Consider trust and motivation

It’s hard to work for someone you don’t trust. It can be done, of course, but the negativity associated with that makes it a hefty challenge. As stated in the story, it’s worthwhile to examine “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.”

And that goes for motivation as well. Expecting employees to stay motivated and to do their best work falls flat when the person leading the charge doesn’t inspire much confidence: “Consider how you feel if you find yourself going along with the boss’ 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?”

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