why leaders bully

Have you lost the boss lottery? Did the boss quiz show your boss is a poor leader?

As you decide how to lead your leader, it can be helpful to understand where he or she is coming from. Some bad bosses are bad people. Their personal relationships are disasters, they’re miserably unhappy, and their values come from the dark side, like vapors wafting from the swamp. They live to dominate and bully the people under them. And some are socio/psychopathic.

Most bad bosses aren’t bad people. They are good people doing a bad job. Many are blithely unaware of the dead, wounded, or stressed-out bodies they leave in their wake. Just as most of us rate ourselves as above-average drivers (no one’s sure who’s having all the accidents), bad bosses tend to think they’re good examples of effective leadership. Understanding how your well-intentioned boss has gone off the rails can help you choose the best strategy for managing him or her.

Here are common reasons good people can be bad bosses:

Confusing information with communication:

When many managers hear people want increased communication, they fire off more emails, CC more people, or dump out more information. They don’t realize their overuse of technology is causing information overload and creating barriers to real conversations and human connections.


Bad bosses are often micro-managers poking into every detail. This may be because their own bosses expect them to know or be answerable for everything that’s going on. This often leads the boss to focus on face time or “taking care of busyness.” The correlation-causation of activity-results gets muddled. It’s also possible that micromanaging bosses were burned or embarrassed by someone else’s past poor performance and want to ensure that never happens again.

It’s all they know:

Many bad bosses have had no role model other than another ineffective boss. Maybe they watched an executive bully and intimidate his or her way up the organization. Maybe they saw micro-management result in promotions. Or maybe they’re now working for a bad boss and mimicking that behavior; often, bad bosses promote in their own image. So, you now work for a clone of that ineffectiveness, a level or two above your boss.

Promoted for all the wrong reasons:

Organizations pay a lot of lip service to the importance of soft skills, “people are our most important resource,” and other warmed-over platitudes. But only the very best organizations measure and use leadership skills as a key promotion criterion. In many cases, people are promoted for qualities like strong technical or analytical skills, loyalty, or likeability because they are good political players. And some people are promoted for delivering short-term results, despite the damaged morale and walking wounded they’ve created.

Overworked and under-trained:

Many managers aren’t coping well with today’s relentless pressure to do more with less. They feel they need to push harder to get more from everyone in their organization. They have bosses pushing them. At the same time, too few have been given training on management methods — such as effectively mapping and managing processes based on solid data — to work smarter, not harder. Most have not had good training and coaching in people-leadership skills to effectively lead teams and coach. Many bosses reflect their organization’s mindset that training is a nice-to-do when there’s time, or even a sign of weakness.

Feeble feedback:

Many bad bosses don’t know what they don’t know because nobody tells them. At the same time, they don’t really want to know what the people they lead think about how they could be more effective. Bad bosses often rate their own leadership performance very high. Tragically, they choke off communication channels and misread the lack of feedback as a sign they are doing well, because no one is telling them otherwise. And they like it just fine that way.

As you think about how you ended up with a weak boss, American organized-crime boss, John Gotti’s comment may or may not apply to your situation — “if you think your boss is stupid, remember; you wouldn’t have a job if he was any smarter.”