Cowdardly Leadership Behavior
When Leaders Fail To Do the Right Thing
“Bosses shape how people spend their days and whether they experience joy or despair, perform well or badly or are healthy or sick. Unfortunately, there are hordes of mediocre and downright rotten bosses out there, and big gaps between the best and the worst. “ — Robert L. Sutton, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst
During my career, I have worked for some horrific bosses. Sometimes I handled the protecting my team well, other times I did not. My behavior at early in my career was not something I am proud of. No excuses.
The Bad: Saying Nothing
I was a purchasing manager working for a toxic boss — I lead the teams that bought parts and supplies for a manufacturing factory. Supply Chain spend was $44 million. We were a small division of a Fortune 500 aerospace company.
My boss was a known problem. People seldom did well in their career once they worked for him. The problem with working for a poison boss is the negativity from him impacted everything around him including your reputation.
My boss, the VP of Purchasing, did not understand how to treat people. His behavior caused us to lose the experts we needed.
We were introducing the new casting engineer to the team. Casting engineering involves determining how to design and fabricate molds for making parts out of liquid metal. This method of fabricating metal parts is a magic trick known to few people.
It took more than a year to fill the position. The casting engineer was doing a fantastic job. We had gone from having significant problems with our castings to almost perfect castings.
We were at our staff meeting. The casting engineer worked for Abraham since he was a technical specialist. Few team members knew him as he was out of the plant most of the time traveling to casting suppliers. He was sitting in his seat when Abraham walked over, balled up a piece of paper in his hand and threw it at him. The engineer caught the ball of paper.
Abraham said, “That’s part of your expense report. You’re missing a receipt for the gas used on your visit to the supplier.”
The engineer looked at him and said, “Okay, I’ll add it.”
Abraham balled up another piece of paper and threw it at him.
He said, “These are the receipts you gave me. If I can’t have them all at once, I want none of them.”
Abraham continued to stand there and ball up individual pieces of paper to throw at the casting engineer.
The rest of us sat there in shock.
After five minutes, balled up pieces of paper that were formerly the engineer’s expense report had been thrown at him. One after the other. Abraham was clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort.
Once he had crumpled and thrown all the paper, Abraham moved on to the next subject. The casting engineer sat in his seat, surrounded by balls of paper. I never saw him pick the pieces of his expense report. I don’t know if he did, because as soon as the meeting was over, I beat it out of there as quickly as I could.
Within two weeks, the casting engineer no longer worked for us. He took less than a week to find employment somewhere else. He gave notice and left the company.
Once he left, we advertised for another casting engineer, but never found another one. The plethora of problems we had been having with castings reemerged in our systems. Six months after he left, I heard someone say, “I sure wish we had kept that casting engineer.”
I did too. My team had to solve the supplier problems caused by bad castings. I had handled this incident badly, never speaking up or interceding. I did not speak to my boss in private regarding his behavior. Instead, I ran away as fast as I could. Not a good look for a leader.
The Good: Transgender Policy Generation
During my time working for Abraham, we had a transsexual person in our department — a man who was transitioning into a woman.
During her change, she wanted to stop using the men’s restroom and to start using the women’s restroom. We had no policy to address this situation, so Abraham wrote one. He took his policy draft to Human Resources (HR). After reading his draft, HR sent Abraham home for two days.
HR asked me to write the policy since I was second in command. I asked and got permission to discuss the situation with our transitioning employee. She spoke with me regarding her situation. I listened to understand what she needed. She had suggestions for the policy, some of which I used. I wrote the policy with both her and other employees need for respect in mind.
I turned my draft into HR. When Abraham returned to work and read my draft, he became furious that they had not allowed him to revise his policy. He yelled and berated me. He said my policy was too liberal.
Abraham demanded that I change the transgender policy draft. I would not. He marched me straight to HR to address my insubordination yelling at me all the way through the plant.
Once again, HR promptly sent him home.
When Abraham returned to work, it was as if our discussion regarding the transition policy never existed. He did not bring it up.
HR slightly revised the policy I had written after speaking with our legal representation and released the policy corporate-wide.
I can’t even imagine what Abraham’s policy said. I had no idea, and I never asked. If the toxic boss did not wish to bring it up, neither did I.
When he wanted me to modify my policy to his specifications, I did not. I defended what was right and won a victory for our employees.
The Ugly: Causing a Mental Breakdown
It was late in the day. We had another of those crazy staff meetings. This time, Abraham had chosen one of our associates — an independent, quiet person — as his target. The guy was one of those people who you knew would complete a project on time that met expectations. He worked for me.
Abraham made him cry. We’re not talking silent tears rolling down his cheeks either — we’re talking loud, audible sobbing. Abraham criticized him viciously because he had been assigned to buy unique parts at reduced cost. He could not do so because the parts were custom made.
Abraham compared current costs to desired costs. He relished every place where the reductions were not met.
The only person who interrupted Abraham during this tirade was me. I pointed out repeatedly that several parts had never met the desired costs in the history of my employment at the company. If we wanted to meet these cost targets, I strongly suggested, that I put together a focused cost reduction team.
I knew I would pay for those interruptions later, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t sit idle and allow the abuse of my employee to continue with no opposition.
When I arrived at work the next day, the shamed employee was waiting for me outside of my office. I went in.
He followed me, and when I turned toward him, he said, “I wanted to let you know that I appreciate you standing up for me.”
Okay, I thought. He’s going to quit. I dreaded what he would say next. He was a good worker who had an expert knowledge of parts that other people did not. I could not afford to lose him. I braced myself.
But that’s not what he told me. In a deadly calm voice, he said, “I’m going to kill Abraham.”
In normal circumstances, that declaration would have caused shock and horror. Such a response would have made things worse, so I kept it together. This was a high stakes situation.
“If you kill Abraham… Well, there’s a problem with that.”
He said, “What?”
I paused. “Let’s go to a private area to talk about this.”
We left my office and went to one of the glass lobby offices. Security was in the lobby. We sat down.
“I will kill him,” he said. “I am fed up with the way he treats other people and me.”
“You know that if you kill him, I will fire you.”
I couldn’t believe I was talking to someone about murder. The consequences would be so much greater than me firing him, but it was all I could think to say.
He believed that he could kill one of the Vice Presidents and keep his job. I couldn’t argue with him about the way he felt. I saw the horrific treatment. But you don’t murder people at work. Murdering is against the law.
“If you kill somebody on company property, I will fire you.” I paused. “Go home. Take a paid day off. You need to get out of here.”
Once he left, I went straight to HR and discussed his proposal. We agreed that he would need to see a psychologist and talk with law enforcement before he could return to work. HR took the ball and ran with it.
The next month, HR cleared him to return to work. He told me his therapist believed that no logical argument would have affected his chosen course of action.
A toxic boss affects every employee. People working for this person do not want to work for him. It damages employees personally if they work for a bad boss too long.
Working for ugliness affects a person. It took until the second staff meeting to speak up. The toxicity in the first meeting affected me, and I froze.
Once again, serendipity was on my side. A production manager job opened unexpectedly. I was promoted to the production floor by the President. There was no way the production floor could operate without leadership so I was transferred to Operations.
The very air you breathe turns poisonous working for a bad boss. There is a way to keep your integrity intact. As long as I did whatever I could to contain Abraham’s bad leadership, I stayed on track for my success.
I could not allow the poison of Abraham’s Leadership style to affect my actions. My career was based on my values. Not my reaction to his viciousness.
Being transferred to a different job was good. Being able to breathe again was better. Keeping my integrity intact while I worked for a toxic boss was the best.
Another Leadership Read: Thriving Under Brutal Management
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Toni can be reached at https://www.tonicrowewriter.com/