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3 things you can learn from your worst boss

January 13, 2015, 5:30 PM UTC
Photograph by David Fox — The Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? is written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, President of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

First career leadership opportunities spark a special excitement. After several years of contemplating how you would do things differently and better, you finally have that chance to demonstrate your ability to make a difference.

There is danger in those thoughts, however. Too frequently, the emphasis shifts from a focus on the organization, to a focus on your own vision of yourself as a leader. As the mirror turns inward, however, it fails to reflect everything else you need to see and understand in order to be the type of leader you once dreamed of becoming.

Despite the thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of articles written on the topic, there are no secrets to being a successful leader. Every day, we witness the strengths and weaknesses of leaders in our workplaces, in our government, and in our communities. Their failures are generally obvious, yet their mistakes are repeated with remarkable consistency.

My advice to a first-time leader, therefore, is to be counter-intuitive. Before reading all the books advising you on how to be a great leader, start by paying attention to the many bad leaders you have read about or observed. Understanding their failures will prove to be instructive. For starters, here are three key deficiencies you should avoid emulating:

  1. Speaking before thinking. New leaders may want to quickly assert their authority and show their ability to act decisively. Avoid that impulse. You may have gotten this job, but the job is not about you. Some decisions may require speed and decisiveness; but most benefit from collaboration and input.
  2. Avoiding negative feedback. Most workplace managers dislike having to critique other people’s performance. The default is to ignore the behavior and develop a work-around, rather than engage in an awkward conversation. Some even handle negative experiences by creating new rules that adversely affect everyone else in the workplace, hoping to change the offending employee through policy rather than direct discussion. This approach manages to annoy good employees while leaving the source of the problem still clueless. Feedback is a skill that can be learned and used to the advantage of everyone in the workplace.
  3. Ignoring the benefits of diversity. It is hard to believe that we have been having the same tired conversations about diversity for decades, while ignoring rapidly changing global demographics that will negatively impact those who do not change. The lack of progress in diversifying senior levels of leadership is the result of leaders who lack vision, commitment, and a willingness to implement some of the difficult and sophisticated steps needed to make a difference. It is no longer about the pipeline, nor is it about “fixing” the individuals who fall into the diverse categories. It is about putting in place the training and systems needed to understand and avoid the impacts of unconscious biases that negatively impact careers at every stage of employment. It is also about ensuring that the creation of an inclusive environment is a vital component of your organization’s business strategy.

So as you assume that leadership mantle for the first time, pay attention to those bad leaders you have been watching for years. And then do the opposite.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

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The one quality all leaders must have by China Gorman, CEO of Great Place to Work Institute.

3 lessons every new leader should know by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

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