Is your boss a jerk? Good! Thank the creep for being so horrible and consider yourself lucky to work for a bad manager today. Otherwise, how else would you become a good one tomorrow? Or here’s the better question:
Do you need to work for a crappy leader to eventually grow into a great one yourself?
Notice what I’m not asking here. I’m not questioning whether someone can learn from bad managers. Obviously, most of us can recognize positive and negative attributes in other people in ways that might influence our own leadership abilities.
Rather, I’m asking if working for or with assholes or incompetents is essential to ensuring you don’t turn into one yourself. Considering that companies spend something like $50 billion annually on leadership development, it’s worth pondering whether horrible bosses aren’t just unfortunate experiences to overcome but actual leadership necessities.
(By the way, although I’m using “manager” and “leader” interchangeably, I know there’s a distinction. I know you know too, too. We’ve worked for more than 1.5 days in our lives to understand the difference.)
When I explored this topic (from a slightly different angle) on LinkedIn, a range of responses poured in. A good number of people commented that we need experiences with managers both good and bad to mold us into successful leaders. In other words, toiling under an awful manager is an imperative leadership criterion.
Some also suggested that it takes reporting to a bad leader to recognize a good one. Here’s what my own manager explained:
The good boss actions that are so ‘obvious’ and positive that they go unseen are genuinely hard to recognize without firsthand experience of their absence (bad boss) or personal challenge to create such experiences for your own team (new boss). In retrospect, a good boss may provide a guiding influence that can shape a leader, but it seems like it’s the retrospection that accomplishes that. Having a good boss seems like it would be that much more valuable following bad boss experience (or challenging new boss experience) because a person will notice more of what’s good and really take it to heart in their own leadership development.
Sorry, boss, not sure I agree. (Hey, great bosses appreciate dissent, right?)
My first manager was abominable. I still wish nothing but the worst for her. (I won’t even pretend to take some Oprah-fied high road here.) Since then, I’ve had some amazing bosses. Thing is, I never needed to benchmark my managers against each other to recognize who was great and who was shit.
I’ll tell you this, though: That initial work experience mildly traumatized me. Thanks to my first boss, I was constantly jittery about screwing up or getting fired in subsequent jobs. Working for her didn’t toughen me up, or make me a better person, or turn me into some other cliché. It was simply a miserable time in my life — certainly not a leadership prerequisite.
But again, the question isn’t whether — or at which point in your career — a bad boss might be useful. It’s if having such a manager is required to become a great leader.
Let’s assume for a moment the answer is yes. So what? What would be the practical implication?
All leadership development programs have one aim — to create better leaders. It’s not as if any company will choose to grow some bad apples to function as tools to sprout the good ones.
It’s also not as if any organization is going to worry that a workplace devoid of bad leaders might hinder the development of good ones. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s more preposterous — a utopia where all of a company’s leaders are wonderful or a dystopia that demands that a business intentionally breed or tolerate awful leaders as necessary evils.
Regardless, hold off on rolling your eyes at me for conjuring a thought experiment that seemingly offers zero applicability in the real world. Even if this notion fails to impact how we develop leaders, it can influence how we select them. For example, you might — might! — argue against elevating employees into certain roles if assessments or employment histories reveal that individuals lack experience working with or for bad managers.
I know, I know, still probably unrealistic. And maybe that’s for the best — because while research shows that enduring hardships helps form better leaders, there are countless ways for any of us to suffer in this world.
Work and life are already filled with enough difficulties, and smart people will learn from the relevant ones. There’s no reason to suggest that any specific hardship — like a bad boss, or a good one — is integral to effective leadership.