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Go ahead: Thank Your Worst, Most Terrible Boss

Yes, the idea of “learning from mistakes and being a better professional” sounds cliché, in line with “we’re not laughing at you, we are laughing with you.” Or “I’m like a kid in a candy store.”

No one wants to make mistakes – they can be humiliating, frightening and even paralyzing. How we respond to our mistakes, and the reactions from others can be the difference between “waking up” and learning and “shutting down” and carrying a burden for a long time.

In February 1989, I made a BIG mistake. As the manager of media relations for a large bank, I accepted an invitation from a reporter at Fortune to include our CEO in a special issue on “Toughest Bosses.”

I was certain I could influence the reporter to see the CEO as my teammates and I did. Tough? Sure. Compassionate? Yeah. Loyal and inspiring? Absolutely. Unfortunately, the NICE stuff doesn’t sell magazines. And what was published was the CEO, complete with hand grenade and story after story about being a “tough boss.”

I was doomed. The bank’s head of HR was so angry at me, he whipped the magazine across the room in my general direction. I made an error in judgment. Media relations was not and is still not a science – yet I had messed up the ART, the SCIENCE, and potentially, my career.

What happened next taught me more about leadership than any one event in my working career. The leader of our division, Joe, called me into his office.  We were getting ready to acquire another company. As a communicator, M&A work was my favorite – I had a seat at the table with our executives, lawyers and bankers.

Joe knew that I was being very hard on myself. The CEO had forgiven me. The HR leader, not so much. Joe pulled me into work that set a path for my success — to lead communications for the acquisition. He actually GAVE ME a bigger assignment. Joe believed in me more than I believed in myself. He stretched and rewarded me when I was at my lowest.

He gave me grace. Grace is a simple and elegant way of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Offering forgiveness or even a pass because of a belief in another’s right intention. Grace is a leadership lesson I have put into play with my own teams, and is now the core of my company, Grace & Stone Communications.

Mistakes like my crisis, “Tough Boss-Gate,” offer a chance to learn who we want to be and who we don’t want to be. If you think back to each moment of professional inflection, it likely presented a moment of choice to be your smartest, strongest, most courageous and sometimes, most humble. Here are five questions to ask during these inflection points:

1. Am I working at a place where I can be ME? This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bathe or you can wear a dog collar to work. Make sure a company culture – the values, the beliefs, the style, the company’s purpose – align with YOU. You should be a part of a team or company that respects you for you. Every day you need to know that YOU – your skills, your values and your style are not just accepted, but valued and rewarded. What I have learned is that working against who you are requires exponential energy that is debilitating and unhealthy.

2. Do I view kindness and trust as soft characteristics? Trusting your boss, your team, your company is as tangible as it gets. If you want a high performing team, demonstrate your trust and respect for your team and their work. Make corrections, be as firm as you need to be. And if your employees feel understood and respected, they will perform miracles for you. Like great leaders understand – take care of your employees, they take care of the customers and THAT takes care of the bottom line. I call that “inspired leadership.”

3. Do I believe in others more than they believe in themselves? Think about and reflect upon the story I shared about Joe. When I was at my lowest, he believed in me. And 30 years later, I hold this experience with me and pay it forward.

4, Am I aware of my narrative? Pay attention to the story you are writing in your head about others. AND pay attention to the story they are writing about you. Your brand matters. Be clear about what it is and manage it with love. I have seen talented, loyal individuals ruined by “stories” others have created based on lazy assumptions about them.

The high-potential woman who shifted her 12-hour day to 5 am to 5 pm was not a hard worker because she left – at 5. The brilliant introvert who didn’t speak up in meetings was somehow “disengaged.” Stop yourself from rushing to judgement or letting others do the same about you. Communicate, own your brand and your power. DO NOT let others define you. YOU. DO. YOU.

5. Am I accessible? Be the leader who walks around, engages with people at all levels, demonstrates authentic interest in the team. Hiding away in your office may feel safe – especially for the introverts. It creates distance with your team, it erodes trust and alignment. Imperious leaders who create fear are doomed. They may keep their jobs, but their employees will not respect them.

Think about your worst, most terrible boss. Now, close your eyes. Visualize yourself hugging your worst, most terrible boss. Here’s the thing. That bad boss taught you more than all of the others. He or she helped you create your own brand of leadership – unlike theirs. And even better, you likely made a life choice as a result of an unhappy environment. How has that gone? I bet you are stronger, better, fearless and humble as a result of that choice.


Author’s Bio:
Ginny Stone Mackin is an executive counselor to company executives and functional leaders who want to improve the performance, value and impact of their organizations. She works with leaders in companies large and small with all types of operating cultures and personalities, and industries ranging from fashion and retail to financial services, public utilities and industrial/manufacturing. Ms. Mackin can be contacted here.


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