Three Ways to Learn From a Bad Leader

I have been fortunate to have had some pretty outstanding supervisors and leaders. Good supervisors teach people. They allow people to make mistakes, help them fix them, and empower them to do better next time. They model how to handle hard situations, how to be diplomatic, and how to make people feel valued, trusted, and confident.

Then there are the supervisors who aren’t such great leaders. These are the people who are demeaning, spiteful, and (in my case – and this sounds dramatic, but it’s true) soul crushing. For whatever reason, be it a power trip, a lack of confidence in themselves, or just a bad personality, they cannot see the value in empowering and supporting their employees. There aren’t a lot of modeled behaviors to learn from in this case.

This is how I spent five years of my career. I was desperate for someone to mentor me; someone to allow me to grow, make mistakes, learn, and succeed. I was in my late 20’s and hungry for anything that would give me experience and develop my work skills.

The simple solution would be to quit. But, besides the fact that not everyone has this option, I LOVED my job! I was helping people! I was educating people! I was making the life for a victim of crime just a little bit easier! That job helped me find my passion. I wasn’t going to quit because of terrible leaders. But how to you learn from people like this?  

Step 1: Observe behavior that you would NOT model.

There is a lot to be learned about how you won’t treat people. I realized early on the kind of behaviors my supervisors had that made me uncomfortable or upset. I learned that I would never talk about my employees to other employees (it always gets back to them). I learned that I would continually provide feedback, both positive and constructive. I learned that I would give credit to employees for their good work. I learned a lot about how to treat people based on how they treated me and others.

Step 2: Learn to not take things personally.

This lesson was a hard one for me. My supervisors were the last to notice a job well done, and the first to notice if something wasn’t perfect. Allowing continual criticism to be taken personally can be very destructive. I started to doubt myself and everything I had always known about my work ethic. I wondered if they were right... I was doing a bad job. I took those doubtful feelings home with me, wondering if other people saw me the way my supervisors did. But positive feedback from others pulled me out of that funk, and I learned that making employees feel bad about themselves was intentional and meant to be hurtful. Don’t take it personally. It’s them, not you.

Step 3: Learn how to protect yourself by always doing your best work.

In cases where there is no grace for an error made, you learn pretty quickly to avoid mistakes. The fallout from screwing up just isn’t worth it. Working under a microscope will make you a better employee. You will learn to double or triple check your work. You will learn to make sure your supervisors don’t have ammunition to use against you.

Having a bad supervisor can be extremely disheartening. The most important thing you can learn from this person is that they aren’t your “boss.” They have power over you only in the workplace. Don’t take it home. Don’t let it affect your relationships outside of work. Lean on the people who actually matter in life - family, friends,  and other groups you are involved in. Trust that there is a reason you are dealing with these people at this point. God is working on something better for you. Be patient, take the lessons, and be prepared for what is in store for you.