Good Work: Horrible Bosses

In an ego-centered culture, wants become needs (maybe even duties), the self replaces the soul, and human life degenerates into the clamor of competing autobiographies.  -Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

We all work with some real jerks.  It can make it miserable to go to work.  It’s a widespread problem and the premise behind a forgettable current movie called Horrible Bosses.
It can be even harder to deal with when the jerk works for you.  When I was a superintendent, there was a principal that was  a jerk to parents and colleages—had been for a decade.  I warned him a couple times.  After the third strike, I pulled him in my office and said, “You’re a jerk, you’re fired.”   It cost the district about $150,000 but it was worth it to set an example and create a culture where we at least treated each other decently.
Having worked for and with a number of jerks, here’s a few lessons.  First, make sure it is them and not you. They may be obnoxious and annoying to you.  If it is your problem, get over it, and ignore it.  But if they are offending other employees and customers with their behavior, you need to deal with it.  Second, be a good role model for others.  Modeling is far more important than anything you can say.  Third, set clear expectations for behavior.  Tell people what you expect.  Let them know when they have offended you or others.  Fourth, forgive them when the screw up.  Give them room if they are trying to improve.  And finally, fire them if it is not working. If you have made sure it is not just you, been clear about what you expect, given them a chance to change, forgiven them when they tried, and you do not see it getting better, you need to deal with it.  That is the line between mercy and justice that leaders must walk.
For the next few Sundays, we’ll be reviewing The Leadership Challenge and what Kouzes and Posner call The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.  The first practice they highlight is modeling the way:

Leaders establish principles concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because the prospect of complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They unravel bureaucracy when it impedes action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there; and they create opportunities for victory.

Modeling is particularly important for school and system heads.  Students, parents, and staff members need to see a compassionate heart, a willingness to learn, sincerity of intent, courage to act, and countenance of hope and joy in service.
If you work for a horrible boss, don’t do it for long.  If you’re in a leadership role, make sure you’re not a horrible boss.  Remember, what you do is more important than what you say.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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