Can a Horrible Boss Be a Great Leader?

In short, yes. But there‚Äôs more to it than you think. 

If you’ve had a horrible boss–and you probably have–you know the difference between a boss that’s tough and one that’s down right horrible. A tough boss pushes you and wants to see you produce the best work to better yourself. A horrible boss looks to excoriate you for any minor mistake you make or blame any shortcomings on you and other subordinates.

But not all horrible bosses end up being failed leaders. Horribleness can, sometimes, be correlated with vision, passion, drive, and perfectionism‚Äìthings that you could conceivably want to see in a leader. Therefore, niceness can, sometimes, be correlated with weakness, mediocrity, and failure. So, as to be seen as a desired leader, some believe a little splash of horribleness makes for a stronger organization. Let‚Äôs see how we can take tips from the big dogs to put a little more bite in our convictions. 

Here are some horrible bosses that ended up being great leaders:

Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue: Ever heard of the movie “The Devil Wears Prada?” Yeah, that book-turned-movie was written by a former assistant of Wintour. If you’re unfamiliar, the story revolves around a young journalist who recently started working as an assistant for a huge fashion magazine, but with no initial interest in fashion. As the story progresses, the boss just gets worse and worse–but I won’t spoil the rest because you should watch it! Although she is often referred to as “Nuclear Wintour,” she has been vital to the continued success of Vogue, even during tumultuous times in the world of print. If you’re really interested in the fashion world and learning more about Wintour, watch The September Issue.

Steve Jobs, Apple: Whether your company uses them or not, everyone knows what Apple is, or at least what a Mac is. That popularity can be credited to Jobs. Yes, in his first incarnation at Apple, he was horrible. He would have fits of rage and throw tantrums; shoot down employee ideas publicly and take credit for others’ ideas, and not to mention he was obsessively controlling. But Apple’s trajectory and current status–number 11 on the Fortune 500 list–prove Jobs was a good leader when it came to success.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Yes, one of the people behind the Civil Rights Act (and our 36thpresident) was also a horrible boss. Johnson loved power, a common downfall in leaders, and would use said power to bend people to his will and ruin their careers through his clout. But as you can see with the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society, he wanted to do what was best for the people in his heart of hearts.

So, how can horrible bosses bounce back?

  • Apologize: An apology goes a long way, especially from a leader or someone who is respected in your organization. If you‚Äôve made a mistake or upset someone on your team, all you have to do is apologize. The statute of limitations on an apology is never up.
  •  Humanize: The simplest definition of humanizing says ‚Äúto make something more humane or civilized.‚Äù Ah, civility, something we are all searching for right about now. If you have even an ounce of empathy, you should be able to understand what it‚Äôs like to be dehumanized, and you should work as a leader to ensure your team never has to feel that way.
  • Validate: Let your team know that their concerns, ideas, and suggestions are all valid and are being heard. Then, figure out how you can work with the team to help initiate their ideas, enact their suggestions, and demonstrate how input can move processes forward.

Stabilizing an organization requires a calming presence at the top. Yes, we all have our freak-outs, but as a leader with more visibility, those freak-outs can be taken differently and more seriously by your team. Being an irascible leader is never a good look.

Some lessons we can learn on leadership from Anna Wintour herself (all quotes gathered from Business Insider)

Be decisive – “The most important thing is to be decisive and sure and to impart that to people working for you. … Even if you aren’t sure of yourself, pretend that you are, because it makes it clearer for everyone else.”

Delegate responsibilities, but don’t micromanage – “People work better when they have responsibility. We talk about what needs to be done, and then I assume it is done. I like to know what’s going on, but I’m not double-checking and triple-checking.”

Be open, but don’t reveal all insecurities to your team – “It’s my job to figure things out.”

 See the departure of top talent as an exciting opportunity ‚Äì ‚ÄúFind someone new with something different to offer, someone who might be able to teach me new things, too.‚Äù

Don’t dwell on the past – “We never have post-mortems. … I don’t need people to tell me if it was a good issue or a bad issue; we know, so we just move forward.”

Be inspired by failure – “I think everyone should get sacked at least once. It forces you to look at yourself.”

A very appropriately topical French proverb states, “One can reign over hearts only by keeping one’s composure.”

It isn’t too late to make amends and be a better boss. You can take from the greats (or “horribles”) while also learning from their leadership mistakes. With your power comes great responsibility, so keep your calm, polish, and kindness and utilize your top talent to run the world!

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