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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.

Like Laura, Pat cared. Yet on another level she didn't. She fought us, the other members of the pastoral team, when we disagreed with her tactics and plans. She vocalized her contempt when we put the brakes on projects, pleading for time. She bullied. What she didn't understand she dismissed. I will never forget a deacons meeting when the sucker punch of her comments about a project I had just presented hit my belly with the force of a rubber bullet, the very surprise of them opening a wound of hurt that took too many prayers and years to heal. She had okayed the project prior to the meeting.

Laura and Pat taught me some bittersweet lessons about leadership. They taught me a lot about me—my gifts and talents—while testing my limits. They taught me that maturity is never a function of age; it's a byproduct of love.

Here are some of those lessons (in no particular order):

1. See people with God's eyes: Pray.

After the door-slamming and intense conversations of the day were over and Laura had stormed back to her office, I usually prayed a simple prayer: "Lord, I love you and you love Laura. Help me to love her the way you do." I genuinely wanted to befriend Laura in the ways that counted—to this day I'm not sure why. Over time, I learned some things about Laura that only the Spirit could have revealed in the context of prayer: her loneliness; her tired cynicism over her weight; her desire to be affirmed, loved, and treasured for who she was. Praying for Laura gave me permission somehow to open up about my spiritual journey with her in the most casual of ways…she knew I prayed, led worship at church, tithed (much to her bemusement). She got to know Baptist culture and quirks through my stories. And she wasn't surprised when I resigned to pastor—she'd been expecting it.

Most important, praying for Laura forced me to acknowledge my fears before God: fear of confronting her when she attacked me, fear of being fired, fear of being laughed at by the agency's managing partners if I called Laura out (even though they knew how toxic she could be), fear of naming the injustice and oppression that ruled in the cubicles and offices around me. But praying my fears and leaving them with Jesus set me free: free to speak up, to confront—in love—and to affirm Laura's strengths while calling out her weaknesses.

2. Search for the positives in the people who surround you: Be relentless.

We are all created in God's image. Laura and Pat are. Your ministry team members are. So sniff out the positives in the people around you. Pat's keen humor and courage (she could have the hard conversations we needed to have) helped the team navigate the darkest waters during the church's time of transition to a new pastoral team leader. Yes, the sludge of neglect, shame, and downright nasty behaviors may have buried your bad boss or toxic teammate's nuggets of gold. So what? Strap on God's armor and start digging. Paul's exhortation in Philippians 2:3-5 demands no less of you and me as leaders.

3. Affirm, affirm, and affirm: Keep it simple.

When you've unearthed those nuggets, go one step further. Everyone needs to be affirmed and valued. You do. So does each member of your ministry team. So does your boss. When was the last time you said "thank you" to a team member or asked about her latest after-work project? Have you congratulated your boss on having completed that tedious or groundbreaking or game-changing project she's been working on for the past year or more? Acknowledgements, of even the little things people do (or say), are simple to offer. Their effects, though, are extraordinary.

Eleven years later, Laura and I still meet for lunch on my birthday. Pat and I connect via Facebook. Who knows how the Spirit is working, even now, through those conversations.

Renee James is the director of communications for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec, and editor of its publication, The Link & Visitor. She is a former administrative pastor and a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman.

November21, 2012 at 11:20 AM

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