In a business career spanning 40 years, including 15 years running a business that develops business leaders, I’ve become well-acquainted with the meme of “bad bosses.” We hear all about it in popular culture: My Boss Sucks.
And there are the endless parade of surveys indicating alarmingly high percentages of employees who are disengaged from their work. The finger is almost always pointed at poor leadership as the cause of this disengagement.
Of course I’m not going to argue the point that many bosses really do suck. The list of sins is endless: greed, tone-deafness, bigotry, disorganization, crappy communication, and downright dishonesty, to name a few. And in our business, Path Forward Leadership Development, we work like the devil to help people learn to lead and manage more effectively. We see these leadership problems, we address them, and we know they cause a lot of suffering in the world.
But something else has become clear to me in these past 40 years as I’ve reflected with brutal honesty on my own behavior towards my bosses, and on the tendency of many employees to enthusiastically position their bosses as the reasons for their victimhood and unhappiness. My reflection leads me to the conclusions that many of us actually want our bosses to suck, and even those of us who don’t want this are unwilling to invest in our bosses to help them get better at their job.
Why would we want our boss to be a bad boss? Well, maybe we’re just stuck in victim mode, wanting our stalled career to be someone else’s fault. Maybe we are generally unhappy, and the boss is an authority figure that illuminates our sense of powerlessness to change our circumstances. Maybe we want our bosses’ incompetence and peccadilloes to provide juicy and dramatic conversation with our friend over adult beverages on the weekend.
Being the boss is hard, and a large percentage of bosses fail – spectacularly – to lead effectively. But as we make judgments about our bosses we’d be best to look in the mirror and see if we might be part of the problem in the relationship. There are millions of us who aren’t invested in any significant way with our bosses’ lives or careers, and who are all too happy to sit back and watch them flail and fail.