Overcoming adversity

A sociologist was researching the long-term effects of family violence. He interviewed two sons of an alcoholic and abusive father. Both brothers were now in their sixties. One son looked back on a life of alcoholism, violence, failed marriages, joblessness, prison terms, suicide attempts, and poverty.

The other son was a very successful professional. He had a close, loving family. He was a non-drinker who kept himself in top physical shape. In separate interviews, the researcher asked each son how they explained the direction their lives had taken. They both gave essentially the same answer, “You’d turn out this way too if you had a father like mine.”

In our executive coaching work I sometimes see a similar scenario with bosses. Many coachees have bad bosses. Yet 360 feedback ratings of their own leadership can be at opposite ends of the rating scales. The poorly rated leader feels victimized by a bad boss. The highly-rated leader sees their bad boss as giving powerful lessons in what not to do.

Weak leaders often don’t recognize the extent of their own Victimitis. They aspire to lead but end up demoralizing their own teams and frustrate themselves by choosing to be disempowered by their boss or others above them in the organization. They give away their power by believing that they don’t have any. They believe that leadership only comes down from the top.

In dealing with a bad boss, you have four choices: 1. Wallow as a victim while complaining and increasing your stress. 2. Live with him or her because other parts of your work compensate for the irritation. 3. Fire your boss by moving out of that job to find another boss (or become your own). 4. Practice upward leadership.

Tomorrow we publish my October blogs in the November issue of The Leader Letter. This issue focuses on boss management. The first question is whether you have a bad boss or a bully boss. If your boss is a bully, the only managing you might be able to do is get out of that toxic situation. If you’re dealing with a weak boss, it can be helpful to understand why their leadership is so poor. That can help you decide which tips or techniques you might try using.

It’s easy to sail a ship when the sea is calm. It’s easy to look like a brilliant investor in a bull market. And it’s easier to be positive when we have an optimistic, supportive, and highly effective boss. What takes courage, skill, and Emotional Intelligence is upward leadership, when you have a weak or a bad boss.

Dealing with a bad boss separates wallowing, following, and leading. The all-too-common issue of poor communications is a telling example. Wallowers will complain bitterly that their boss doesn’t communicate and give them the information they need. Followers will passively wait for the information and hope their boss or senior management will get their act together. Leaders will ask questions, quietly persist, or gently insist until they get the information they need. This takes skill, this takes initiative, and this takes courage. This is leadership.

Less effective leaders often complain bitterly as they wait for their boss and others higher in the organization to act. It’s easy to point a finger upward and shake our heads in disgust. It’s much harder to look in the mirror at the biggest contributor to many of our leadership problems.