Leadership Lessons from Bad Bosses

What I’ve learned from negative examples

We all know those leaders: the bosses we've had who've made us think, "How did they get to be where they are?"

For more than 18 years, I worked for such leaders at two of Canada's largest advertising agencies. After my ad-agency career, I pastored for seven years alongside those bosses at one of the oldest Convention Baptist churches in Toronto, Ontario. And as I climbed the ladder during those nonstop ad-agency years and sweated through the sticky years of church pasturing, I wondered if I too would turn into one of those leaders—short on thanks and trust, long on politics and power plays.

Laura (not her real name) directed the agency division at which I last worked. As her associate account director, I ran her group, managing a team of media buyers and planners who worked with million-dollar ad budgets for a stable of retail clients. Laura was scary smart: She knew the ins and outs of Canada's advertising landscape. Every day she married those smarts with pointed strategic thinking about how to better plan and spend our clients' budgets. She was almost fearless in her dealings with powerful television and radio executives and equally bold in suggesting out-of-the-box ideas to our clients. For her, the client mattered (at least in public).

On a profound level, Laura cared. Yet on another level, she didn't. She fought me at every turn. My deadlines were cushy, my reports simplistic, my team meetings long, my dealings with my direct reports soft. I wasted time on the phone with television and radio reps—didn't I understand they weren't to be trusted? By mid-morning she'd walk from her corner office into my office, forcefully shut my door, and start our first "intense" conversation of the day.

When I left my ad-agency career to pastor at a church, I looked forward to a future rosy with leaders from whom I could learn, leaders under and beside whom I could flourish. The senior pastor (and the one on whom I'd pegged all my "Please lead me well" hopes) resigned less than six months after I started. Congregants left the church while decades-old relationships cracked, never to be mended. I, with the remaining members of the pastoral team, journeyed on like so much sorry flotsam, floating on the sordid wake the senior pastor trailed behind him. Pat (not her real name) led the team for almost five years…not an easy task, given the sifting that had just taken place.

Like Laura, Pat was scary smart. Some of the most profound encounters I've ever experienced with the Living Word happened while she preached and taught on Sunday mornings. She was organized to a fault. She projected a dependable stability the congregation needed. She championed the underdogs and the marginalized in our downtown community.

November 21, 2012 at 11:20 AM

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