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Lessons in Leadership

The case of the screaming boss

How to survive and grow in spite of a bad boss

By Robert L. Bailey

Dear Mr. Bailey,

Most of the employees in my department are good at their jobs, have strong relationships with our customers, and do an excellent job for our employer. We do whatever it takes to get the job done, often going beyond the call of duty, and we get frequent positive feedback from our customers. They appear to appreciate what we do, which makes our efforts worthwhile.

Our boss spends most of his time in his office and has little contact with his direct reports. Then about once a month he comes out screaming like a maniac. He tells us we are incompetent, lazy, and provide horrible customer service. He’s never specific. No one knows what was done wrong or who did it. There’s never positive feedback or an expression of appreciation for a job well done.

Following an outburst, morale plummets for a couple of days. Then we pull ourselves out of the slump and everything returns to normal. Virtually all of us have threatened to quit and look for jobs elsewhere, but since the tantrums are short-lived, we have learned to put up with them.

Any advice on how to make our jobs more pleasant?

—A Rough Notes Reader

Dear Reader:

I would like to be able to tell you that there is a quick fix to the problem you and your associates are experiencing, but that is not the case. Many American workers are unhappy with their jobs, and nearly always it’s because of the manager. People don’t leave companies; they leave their managers.

Poor managers and supervisors are the greatest cause of employee turnover and job dissatisfaction. They even cause physical illnesses—real physical illnesses, not imaginary ones. You and your associates are to be commended for being able to “shake it off” after a couple of days.

I would also would like to be able to tell you that the actions of your boss could be corrected with a good magazine article or book on leadership, for great leadership skills should be readily attainable by any aspiring leader. But that’s unlikely to happen. Your boss was promoted to his present position by treating people poorly, and chances are he sees little reason to change. Through the years there has been little progress in improving leadership skills in America. Our hope to improve leadership in America lies with the next generation. Most of those currently in leadership roles are not motivated to improve.

So much of the burden must fall on you and your associates, and it appears you have made progress in taking your work conditions in stride. It’s important to remember: It’s not you. You’re not the reason your boss is such a jerk. It’s only that he has failed to learn effective leadership skills.

Think back to your years in grade school, high school and college. If you’re like me, you had more bad teachers than good ones. But somehow you and I survived, have forgotten the bad experiences (the human mind has a way of forgetting the unpleasant), and remember only the fun and good times we had.

Approach your job in the same manner. You will have many bosses during your career. It’s a near certainty that you won’t have your present one forever.

Positive steps

Yes, you may have to put up with this individual for a while—but there are ways to make your workday more bearable. For instance:

• Do a great job and encourage others in the department to do the same. Great departmental performance may bring about a promotion—for your boss.

• Prepare yourself to become the manager of this department or another one. To prepare yourself for a leadership role, read good books on leadership (Please excuse this blatant commercial message—like my book Plain Talk About Leadership.)

• Study all the leaders you come in contact with, even the poor ones. Even the bad leaders, including your present boss, have certain positive qualities that you would do well to emulate. And certainly you can identify the qualities you don’t want to adapt for your personal use.

• See your relationship with your present boss as a learning experience, not a life sentence.

• Even if you don’t want the headaches of becoming a manager, work toward promotion to another department. To stay motivated on the job, I’ve found that people need new challenges every five to seven years. Most people who are in the same job for 20, 25 or 30 years almost certainly will get sick and tired of doing the same ol’ thing.

• See the humor of your boss’s actions. During my career I’ve had many bosses, and most will never make the Bosses’ Hall of Fame. I’ve seen Dilbert in action long before Dilbert was born. How many Dilbert-isms did you see today? It’s fun to laugh about it (with your spouse after you get home from work, not during the workday).

• Show some empathy for your boss, whose behavior may be driven by frustration. He may be catching similar flack from the big boss, who likewise doesn’t know how to lead. Or this style of leadership is the only form of leadership he has ever been exposed to. Be sympathetic to the person who simply doesn’t know better.

• Think of the great friends you’ve made on your job—folks with whom you can share your burdens, who give you courage, and who lend a helping hand in both your personal life and your business life. If you’re like most of us, some of your best friends are those you’ve made on the job.

Are conditions so intolerable that you should change jobs? Certainly there are times when a job change is appropriate (for instance, when it provides a terrific career opportunity or a new challenge you need). But when some 72% of American workers tell us that they don’t like their jobs or have bad bosses, keep in mind that your new boss may be as bad as the one you’re trying to escape.

Several years ago one of my coworkers moved to another company to get away from a bad boss. Within a year or so, his new employer hired his old boss to head his department. Sometimes it’s hard to run away.

One of my former bosses was a particularly difficult individual. He had an explosive temper, which he exhibited daily. He seemed to enjoy harshly criticizing an employee, especially in the presence of others. His hands shook in anger.

I had about all I could take (I was looking for a job elsewhere, had received an offer and was about to accept it) when quite suddenly he died of a heart attack. I had not understood what he was saying: “I don’t understand management and leadership; I don’t understand this industry or this company; I don’t know how to perform the job I’ve been charged with. Somebody, please help me.”

Fortunately, I had not left the company, for following his death I was selected as his successor.

It’s not likely you can change the behavior of your boss, but perhaps you can better accept work conditions, and find greater happiness in your work by applying some of the principles we have discussed.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

Good luck in finding happiness—and success.

The author
Robert L. Bailey is the retired CEO, president and chairman of the State Auto Insurance Companies. He is now a speaker and consultant on building successful businesses and is the author of Plain Talk About Leadership. Visit, or contact him at (941) 358-5260 or


It’s not likely you can change the behavior of your boss, but…you can better accept work conditions and find greater happiness in your work.














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