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What I Learned About Being a Good Leader by Working for a Bad Boss

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Eric Watters
November 9, 2017


I believe as much, if not more, can be learned by working for a bad boss as can be learned from a good leader. Of course, no one would choose to work for a bad boss, even though great lessons can be learned, but that choice is rarely ours. I have worked for and with some very good leaders in my day, and I learned important lessons from each of them. However, I may have learned more from working for a bad boss than all of those good leaders combined. Below are the principles of leadership I developed after having worked for some very good leaders and one bad boss.

Be a Good Follower

To be a good leader, one must know how to be a good follower. A leader who has been a good follower can effectively relate to followers and know what can and cannot be expected from them. Also, good leaders often hand the lead off to others who are better suited to lead in certain situations; therefore, the leader must be prepared to be a good follower even when he/she is most often in the lead. A leader who can set a prime example of good followership helps to build new and better leaders, and foment strong relationships with followers.

Insist on Accountability

As Stephen Covey wrote, “accountability breeds response-ability.”  If you demonstrate personal accountability and demand it of your subordinate leaders, they will demand it of everyone else. When people take accountability for their actions, they will take pride in their work and assume responsibility for organizational success.

Address Underperformers Immediately

Underperformers must be addressed as their malaise can be contagious. When employees who do not perform are allowed to shirk their responsibilities and their work is shifted to reliable employees, morale will be damaged and good employees will slip into apathy.

Do Not Cultivate Yes Men

Invite your employees to challenge the status quo. Ask them to provide honest feedback to your ideas. It is through genuine give-and-take and open-and-honest communication that ideas are refined and success if achieved.

Delegation is a Hallmark of Leadership

Stay out of the weeds and release control. Provide clear and timely direction, and then step aside. “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Leading from the Front Does Not Mean Doing Everything Yourself

As Nelson Mandela wrote, “A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”  If subordinates can perform a task efficiently and effectively, let them, but never ask someone to do something you would not be willing to do yourself. When you see motivation waining, step in and work with them. Show them the work is important enough for you to get involved. It can change their view of the work to be done and recharge their motivation.

Empower Subordinate Leaders

They are there for a reason. If they are not capable of making those decisions mentor and train them; it is your responsibility to improve them or remove them. Remember that good leaders lead, but great leaders shape other leaders.

Employ the Platinum Rule

Treat employees as they wish to be treated. Treat them as the professionals they are. Give them support and the freedom to do their jobs. They will work hard and make you look like a superstar.

Praise in Public and Reprimand in Private

This should go without saying, but we get so used to being around our group and stressing open communication that we often forget this rule.

Every Reprimand is a Mentoring Opportunity

When leaders make mistakes they usually know it. Beating them up about it will not help. Take the opportunity to turn a “come to Jesus meeting,” that everyone dreads, into a positive learning experience. Have them explain what went wrong and give them the opportunity to tell you how they would handle it differently in the future. Give them advice not admonishment.

Be a Good Listener

Listen to the ideas of your people. They work where the rubber meets the road and often have the best and most practical ideas. When they feel they have had input in the organization’s direction, they will develop buy-in and take pride in organizational achievements because those achievements will also be their achievements.

Be Honest with Employees

Give them authentic feedback. If their idea is not good or simply is not feasible, then tell them that. Nobody appreciates feeling as though they were given lip service. They will feel as though they and their ideas were dismissed rather than valued.

Show Everyone that You Are Human

Admit your mistakes readily and let employees know you have a sense of humor. Be an empathetic leader who is tuned into your employees’ lives. Employees value their personal and family lives so engage them about what is going on in their “other” life. It will give you an opportunity to connect with them on a deeper more personal level. All this will remind them that you are not only a leader, but a person as well.

Share Successes and Assume Responsibility for Failures

When things go well give the credit to your hard-working employees. When your organization succeeds people will think better of you and give you credit, but they will most often forget the people in the trenches who made your vision come to fruition. Be sure to point them out and put them in the limelight. They will appreciate it and it costs nothing to do so. When your organization has a failure assume responsibility for the failure and shield your employees from that criticism. If you are a good leader who treats them well, they will already beat themselves up over the failure. Use that moment to show you are the kind of leader who takes the ultimate responsibility. Your employees will respect you for it and will work even harder to avoid future failures.


Without a doubt, just as much can be learned from working for a bad boss as can be learned by observing a good leader. Living through the crucible that was working for a bad boss made me a more mindful, introspective, and empathetic leader. I am thankful to have worked for a bad boss because it made me a better leader.

Author: Eric Watters, Ph.D. is a commander with the Miramar, FL police department, an adjunct professor of Public Administration at Barry University, and adjunct instructor at the Broward County Police Academy at Broward College’s Institute of Public Safety.  His most recent research interests center around leadership style selection among law enforcement supervisors, andragogic vs. pedagogic techniques applied to law enforcement training, and human resource practices in justice administration.

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