Leadership 3: How do nice people, who happen to be outstanding workers, become bad bosses?

Picture Credit: WordPress Jamesisnext

How to get people to follow you because they want to and not because they have to. 

Lack of training and models of good leadership in Level 1 Leadership.

“Employees are every company’s biggest asset, and to maximize their performance, the front-line supervisor is the god of employee satisfaction and productivity.  And yet, most workplaces have little or no training for newly promoted front-line supervisors which results in our best workers often becoming our worst bosses.”  Tom Peters

The painful evolution of outstanding workers into bad bosses.

The reason we have so many mediocre managers and bad bosses is because we do not value training about leadership, I have been told this to my face when I suggested starting a Leadership Mentoring course at work.  And we have precious few examples of good leaders to follow. 

It is hard to model your behavior in a positive way when you have no idea what that behavior would look like.  Kids love to watch sports on TV: baseball, basketball and football, and then run outside and imitate their favorite players.  Hell, we do it as adults! When the Olympics are on, living rooms and open spaces around the world become gymnastic mats or ice rinks as future Olympians jump and spin, then bow to accept the applause and bouquets of their imaginary audience. Every straightaway becomes the 100-meter track in Rio as we line up next to Usain Bolt.  We can only strive to emulate those things we can visualize.

But when a person finds themselves thrust into a supervisorial position with no training, and no examples of excellent leaders, their only choice is to model themselves on bosses they have had, and unfortunately, most of those bosses were probably inefficient at best and terrible at worst.  Accepting a promotion without proper training can be frightening.

Credit: Cheeseburger.com

People are promoted to be supervisors because they are good at what they do, not because they have leadership potential.  But the good news is, leadership is a skill which can be learned.

Watch entire video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0rN73zXcfI

Credit: beBee.com

Simon captures in one sentence the principle which has guided me through all my leadership roles much more succinctly than I ever could, “The real job of a leader is not about being “in charge” but about taking care of those “in our charge.”

By this definition, I started being a leader when I was a 24 year old engineer in the fire department and I volunteered to teach firefighters how to prepare to become engineers, to drive the fire truck and operate the water pump on the fire ground. Moving from firefighter to engineer was a major promotion and firefighters were eager to win that prestige.  But it required a great deal of training because operating a pump on a fire truck was complicated, water came in from a fire hydrant at a tremendous volume and the engineer had to reduce the volume of water, while raising the pressure, before sending out through the smaller hoses firefighters dragged into the burning buildings. The firefighters who rode my truck were my team members, and I took care of them by training them to take my job.

What does it look like when someone is promoted out of their skill set?

When an organization needs to promote someone to supervise a group of employees, the logical starting point in looking for candidates is within the group, and the best candidate is usually thought to be the person who does the work best.  Notice that they usually do not consider who has the best leadership skills.  Perhaps this is because the people who are making the selection have no leadership skills, making it a self-perpetuating cycle of mismanagement from the top.

Let’s say you are an expert bricklayer; you build brick walls.  No one can build them quite as perfectly as you do.  And you love building them, when you finish a row, you stand back and see a thing of beauty that could stand strong for centuries, and you feel the same thrill that a brick layer from the Roman Empire felt, a thousand years ago.  You are a master bricklayer, a proud craftsman carrying on a tradition which has existed since pre-history, and you are happy.

Now your supervisor is promoted.  You are not sad to see him go because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing and he just seemed to boss people around, and you are flattered when they come to you with an offer to take his job as supervisor! Promotion!  More money, the prestige of wearing a white safety helmet, a leadership position, your own projects, now you are going to be able to run a crew the right way!  So, you take the promotion, brag to your friends that now you are now a leader, report back to work on Monday and assume your new responsibilities. 

What were the responsibilities of your old job?  Laying bricks and producing perfect brick walls.  What are the responsibilities of your new job?  Supervising people who are to going to be building brick walls.  What was your old focus? Laying each brick perfectly.  What is your new focus? Making other people lay each brick perfectly and to build the walls as quickly and perfectly as you did.  Hopefully, the end result will be the same thing, a perfect brick wall.  But your role in building that wall is now completely different, as are the skills called for – once a highly skilled manual craft, now pure people skills, getting a group of bricklayers to follow your directions. How do you lead the team successfully?  That is the question that most new supervisors struggle to answer.

Because you know how to lay brick better and faster than they do, as you watch them work with poor attention, or with their sloppy habits, it is maddening.  It would actually be so much easier for you to just do it yourself, but that is no longer an option, so you start micromanaging them, pointing out imperfections, making them redo sections, getting annoyed because they can’t do the job as well as you do.  You become frustrated and when they start to complain that you are being a perfectionist, rather than explain, AGAIN, the importance of doing something in your particular way, you fall back on, “Just shut up and do what I tell you, if you don’t like it quit, there are people lined up to take your job.”  You find that being a supervisor is more challenging than you expected as you see that people who used to be your friends are starting to resent you.

Then one day you are driving home from a job site and you think, “Oh no, I have turned into my old boss, and I hated that son of a pup!”

Because you don’t have the skills to INFLUENCE and PERSUADE your team members, you have fallen back on using your position of power to make people do what you say because they have to if they want to get paid.  You have to BOSS people around. This is the problem with Level 1 leadership.

The shortcomings of Level 1 leadership for managers and bad bosses.

John Maxwell teaches about 5 levels of leadership, but for purposes of our discussion we are going to only focus on the first two levels – Level 1 is the position level, where people follow you because they have to.   Level 2 is the relationship level where the team members follow you because they want to, they give you permission to lead them.  We all need to get to Level 2.

Here is John explaining Level 1 leadership, and why our bricklayer is floundering.

Watch entire video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsSSKguP7Yw&feature=youtu.be

And I think we can all agree that we don’t like to HAVE to follow people.  We resent it. As you recall, Simon Sinek pointed out that most Level 1 new supervisors start as managers because they are good at what they do, that’s how they got promoted, and that is what they want to focus on.  In my experience people who remain at the manager stage of development in Level 1 just don’t enjoy people, they don’t care to know their team members.  They just want to focus on the work (which they understand) and not on the problems of the people on their team, which they consider babysitting.  Level 1 managers are easily tolerated the the team when things are running smoothly in an office, a bargain is struck: as long as the manager leaves us alone with sufficient instruction on how to do our job, we will ignore them too. Oh sure, the work place is certainly not ideal, there is little energy, it is like the night of the living dead in the hallways, no inspiration, people just going through the motions to get the job done.  And God help you when you are a struggling and you go to this manager for guidance.  You are quickly shown the door and told you are on your own, your manager is not a social worker. You find yourself alone in the wilderness because your manager has the relational skills of a cowboy driving a herd of cattle.

Credit: Caryn Esplin

As we saw in the example when we imagined ourselves as the bricklayer who has been promoted to a position  we had not been trained for, as a frustrated Level 1 leader, your team is not doing a good job, they are not listening to you, and they are beginning to resent you.  At that point, you have three choices.  1. Go back to what you used to do, just being a master craftsman bricklayer, and you can be happy as you lay bricks perfectly and to hell with everybody else; (a decision which, unfortunately, in our society would be viewed negatively as failure on you part.) 2. Continue to be a bad boss, growing more frustrated and making your team members miserable; or 3. Put in the work to learn to become as good a leader as you are a bricklayer.  You can do that, you can become the leader he always wanted to have, but it takes some effort and some guidance which these posts will supply here. 

How can you learn to be the kind of leader who takes care of the people in your charge?

My series of posts  provide the concrete steps that you can start taking as a leader to build the relationships with your team members to speed the transition from Level 1 leadership, where they have to follow you, to Level 2 leadership where they want to follow you.  But first you need to know what Level 2 looks like. 

What does Level 2 look like?

John Maxwell describes Level 2:

How does a leader connect with their team members so that you like them, and they like you?  You need to take actions which result in three things: they feel safe, they feel you trust them and they trust you, and they know that you respect them.  What are the characteristics of a Level 2 leader?

What a revolutionary point of view it is to say that real leaders have an attitude of service to their team members, they not only do serve, but they love to serve.  On the other hand, bad bosses think that the team exists only to serve them. 

So we can agree that Level 2 is based on the relations established, we connect with our team members, and it is usually at this point in a discussion when I agree with the principle the author is espousing, and I am eager to implement it, but all too often we move on to another principle without being given any concrete steps to take to implement the principle.  In the following posts I intended to show you exactly what steps to take to connect with your team. 

The upcoming posts will discuss the following topics which are crucial for you to build a relationship with your team as John Maxwell suggests.

What is necessary to become a Level 2 leader?


Acknowledging that Leadership is based on service and is a sacred trust.

Leadership is a sacred trust because those you lead are entrusting you with years of their life. You must value their time and do your best to provide an enriching experience to those on your team, and if you are not willing to accept the sacrifice that leadership requires, you should decline the promotion and stick with what you are good at. As a leader you must always put the interest of your team ahead of your own personal interests.


Learning to listen like a leader.

You will develop the listening skills of a leader in four different situations:

1. Listen to question requesting information so they can do their job.  Every supervisor answers these type of questions all the time, “Who do I call about . . .”  But when you listen to the question as a leader, you take the responsibility of making sure the person asking understands the answer. If you answer the question, and the listener does not understand, that is YOUR fault, because you are the only person who knows what you are trying to communicate.  A leader gives people permission to keep asking questions until they understand.

2. Listen to a team member requiring guidance or support.  As a leader you must create a safe environment, and take the time, to listen to team members who need your guidance with professional or personal issues. When you have listened intently to a struggling team member, and they feel that they have been heard, you have establish a bond that will encourage trust and cooperation.

3. Listen closely enough to recognize an unspoken plea for assistance.  As a leader you must know your team members well enough to recognize when they are struggling, even when they don’t say it.  And when you invite them to share, they must trust you enough to share personal issues.

4. In a group, you, as leader, will speak last to allow everyone on the team to feel their contributions have been heard and valued.

Observing your team:

Creating a circle of safety around your team members.

You will make your team members feel safe, supported, and part of a caring community, starting on Day 1. You will maintain that safe environment by constantly monitoring the well-being of your team members, observing them as they work, watching for signs of someone struggling and stepping in to help them,  or catching them in the act of doing something right and rewarding them for that.  You will properly differentiate between “a situation,” “an urgency,” and “an emergency,” and respond accordingly with a calm, measured solution.

Learning about, and from, your team members:

Building a community of trust.

You will build trust within your team by extending trust as you steadily increase the scope and difficulty of the tasks you assign them, and by encouraging team members to report mistakes quickly so they can be corrected immediately and you will treat mistakes as learning opportunities.  

Respecting each team member as an individual.

You must create a space where each team member is respected as a person by first and foremost being kind. You will check in every day with every team member, asking the right questions, to show them that you care about them as people, and value them.  This allows you to get to know each team member, being genuinely interested in their opinions and suggestions, publicly backing them in critical situations, putting your team members physical and mental health foremost, being considerate of work hours and protecting their weekends and vacation, and always make time for fun.

Respecting each team member’s skills.

You will show respect for your team members skills by knowing what they are good at and what they like to do and know what they are bad at and hate to do. You will always try to assign work accordingly, and when you must assign a project which will be difficult for a team member, you acknowledge that sacrifice, provide support, and celebrate its completion.  Always try and provide as much autonomy as possible by allowing someone to work on a project from beginning to end whenever possible. Celebrate success loud and proud, help individuals discover their unique gifts, develop their confidence in those gifts, share them, and be recognized and appreciated for doing so.  Always provide opportunities for your team to develop their skills, and encourage them to suggest new approaches to problems, and encourage people to take chances, and if they fail, show them that they failed forward. 

Allowing sufficient time for your team to accomplish their tasks.

And finally, a leader must create a space where team members have the time to accomplish their tasks, while providing as many blocks of uninterrupted time as possible.

It’s just common sense.

As you can see, we are going to be talking about how you can do all these thing, and it sounds like a lot, but as you read the following posts which deal with each of the topics above, you will see that it is all common sense, but you may never have thought of doing these things because no boss has ever done them for you.

A closing note on working in a toxic environment under a bad boss.

I was once stopped by my boss on my way out of the office and accused of leaving work on time. 

Let me repeat that.  I was once stopped by my boss on my way out of the office and accused of leaving work on time. 

I looked at my watch and replied, “Actually, it is 5:03, so I was here for three extra minutes, but I will let that slide this time.”

I was then informed that if I cared about our work I would stay late.  I nodded, walked out the door and went home, mad, but relieved to be out of that mad house.

I very much cared about the work, I loved my work, in fact, and when I was left alone to do my work, I was happy as a lark.  What I had to flee at the end of the day was the toxic atmosphere in the office.  We had a volatile, unpredictable boss, everyone was walking on eggshells trying to avoid being the shiny object that would catch the rarely helpful attention of the boss. The mood of the boss dictated whether we had a bright sunny day or a thunderstorm of stress in the office.  That is no way to live, and I needed to get out of there as quickly as possible, to start repairing the damage so I could return tomorrow for another dose of being demeaned.

I have also worked in offices where I lingered for hours afterwards, either doing my work or helping others, but those offices had leaders who had created a nurturing environment.  We felt safe, trusted, supported and where we were valued as human beings.  I suppose you could rate the quality of the leadership in the offices where I have worked by looking at my quitting time.

If you have worked in a Level 1 office, you may recognize John Maxwell’s comical take on how to identify an office being run by a bad boss.

So with that, I got to get out of here, it’s quitting time!

Up next, Leadership 4: Why are there so many incompetent people at work and how you can avoid becoming one of them.

I need your help. I would like this series of leadership posts to be a living document.  If you are a leader and have some strategies which have worked for you, please let me add them to this.  If you becoming a better leader and have questions, write me.  If you know someone who has recently been promoted, or someone who is struggling, please pass this on so we can include them in the conversation.  We are all in this together! Let us all become the leaders we always wished we had!

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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