#213: 7 Things Bad Bosses Taught Me About Being a Good Leader

Thank goodness for bad bosses! I know that seems like an odd thing to proclaim, but it’s true. I am thankful for bad bosses.

Good leaders


Because bad bosses can teach us a lot about being a good leader. If we learn something from the example of a bad boss then they are a fulfillment of Paul’s proclamation in Romans 8:28, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

A bad boss may be miserable to work for today, but if you learn something from them that makes you a good leader, then it makes enduring them worthwhile.

Last week I wrote about two bad bosses in my life (you can read about them here). This week let’s dig in and look at a few of the things I learned about being a good leader from these two bad bosses.

1. Lead by Example

All leaders lead by example. The issue is, are you setting a good example or a bad one? Peter, writing to the elders (1 Peter 5:1-4), admonished them to be willing, servant leaders not taking advantage of those they lead.

Paul writing to his young protégé, Timothy, said: “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (Timothy 4:12). That’s the kind of example good leaders set.

2. Trust Those You Lead

David wrote that it is better to trust in the Lord rather than in men (Psalm 118:8-9).

Yes, our ultimate trust must be in the Lord, but I have found that if people see that you trust them, they will return your trust. On the other hand, if people feel that you don’t trust them they will become untrustworthy themselves.

3. Get Out of Their Way

One sign that you trust your people is that when you give them an assignment, you get out of their way and let them work. Being a micro-manager who hovers over your people makes you a poor supervisor, certainly not a leader.

General George Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

It’s been my experience the more you tell people what to do the more you restrict their creativity. The more you restrict someone’s creativity, the less they have invested in your success.

4. Take Responsibility

Leaders take responsibility when things don’t go according to plan. Solomon wrote, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).

If you are a good leader, you don’t throw your people under the bus when results don’t come in as expected. It was your job to lead. It was your job to anticipate and deal with problems. So, if things go haywire, it was your fault. Take responsibility.

5. Give Credit

When things go well good leaders know the results accrue to the hard work of the team and they give the team credit.

I learned early in my management career the quickest way to build morale in the organization is to build up the people who did great work. Shout their achievements from the rooftops. Let everyone know how great your team is.

Andrew Carnegie said, “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.”

6. Don’t Play Favorites

Good leaders do not play favorites. I know it’s hard not to have favorites sometimes. There are some people you like more than others. Some are kindred spirits that you click with the minute you meet. Others make you tense up the minute they come into the room.

But good leaders avoid the temptation to play favorites. Solomon warned against playing favorites when he said, “To show partiality is not good” (Proverbs 28:21a).

James also warned against playing favorites when he said, “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:9).

7. Listen for Understanding

One of the most valuable skills any leader can have is the ability to listen. Learn to listen, not just to hear, but to understand. Often understanding comes from comprehending that which is beyond what is said.

James exhorted fellow believers saying they “should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). You cannot listen for understanding if you are readying your response while the other person is still talking.

These are just seven of the leadership traits of good bosses I learned from my bad bosses. If you are already a leader, make sure you exhibit each of these traits. If you are on the road to leadership, make sure you make each of these traits is part of your leadership character.

Join the Conversation

As always, questions and comments are welcome. If you’ve worked for a bad boss what did you learn from them about being a good leader? Are there any of these leadership traits you need to work on?

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Category: Skills | Leadership Development




Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • John says:

    Ron- I can underscore the power of “leading by example” and “listen for understanding.” As Chief of Police, I always attended early morning roll calls, an hour before my work day began. It gave me a chance to be with the officers and spend time with them. I also made a point of helping out in the field when I could. As a young police officer I was often frustrated by our Chief. He was a good man but impatient listener. He taught me (unwittingly) how important it is to listen well. Great post, thanks!

    • Ron Kelleher says:

      John, If ever there was a field where the ability to listen for understanding is critical it’s being a cop. Too bad about your old chief – impatient listeners are hard on an organization on so many levels! But then, he showed you by his example what to do and what not to do!

  • Ashley Osborne says:

    I have had a few bad bosses in my past experiences, where I have learned a lot about things I hope to not do as a leader. I loved the 7 different points you touched on, because I can relate to them in a very personal way for how to lead in other positions I have had. One that resonates with me specifically is number 5 – giving credit. I had a boss that didn’t necessarily give credit after the team completed a huge task, they just expected it was done and done well. This was hard for me to understand if my work was beneficial or just overlooked so I was often discouraged. I saw later from other bosses that I was very built up when I received credit after completing a big project or task and this motivated me to keep doing what I was doing. I see now that I want to be a leader that encourages and gives credit to those who deserve it for all the hard work they have done.

    • Ron Kelleher says:

      Ashley, It is amazing how much people can do when they know their efforts are appreciated. And conversely, how quickly morale drops when hard work is not even recognized!

  • Kaki Hall says:

    Thanks for the post! I think that bad bosses can teach us a lot of things! For example, my bad bosses in the past have taught me what not to do and what to avoid. If I get to that level of even being a boss, I will definitely make sure to avoid the things my bad boss did! The number one pet peeve that my old boss did was not appreciating his employees. Whenever they would go above and beyond with certain tasks, he would not acknowledge their work, which was very frustrating. Thank you for the points and Thank goodness for bad bosses!

    • Ron Kelleher says:

      Kaki, Sounds like you’ve learned an important lesson about the importance of respecting and acknowledging the accomplishments of the people you work with. Good for you!

  • Ben Thornton says:

    I really like all of the different pieces of advice that you address and think that they are all very helpful. I find that the one piece of advice that I got the most out of was listen for understanding. I have always been comfortable talking with others but I have more trouble listening. I really like what you say about learning to listen not just hear. I am reminded of James 1:22-25 which says “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” This is something that I need to work on in my own life

    • Ron Kelleher says:

      Ben – there is great wisdom in that verse and its a perfect reinforcement of the importance of listening for understanding and taking action on what God requires of us!

  • Kelsey Hager says:

    I think that with everything, experiencing something bad will always teach you something about yourself or other important pieces of information. Just as well, observing bad leadership from someone else helps you learn from their mistakes and helps you adapt to a better teaching style and action plan. One important trait of a leader that I value is their ability to give credit to others. I think that establishes trust and employee rewards – it lets them know that their hard work is paying off. I believe this can be hard for some leaders to do because some may think that it is undermining their own success but it is definitely essential for business success and employee loyalty.

    • Ron Kelleher says:

      Kelsey, I agree bad things have the potential to teach you something but we need to be purposeful about learning from the bad example of others in order to benefit ourselves. Yes – I totally agree one of the most important things a leader can do is give credit to others for their good work!

  • Elisa Gomez says:

    I agree that having to deal with a bad boss allows you to realize what kind of boss you want to be or want to work for. This could help someone become a good leader. I strongly agree that a leader leads by example, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. I have also learned through my jobs that the more you trust people, the more they will return that same trust. In my current jobs right now, I admire my bosses so much for their ability to let me take responsibility and leadership in my positions which increases my creativity and confidence to get the job done well. It proves to me that they can trust me and for that I work even harder and strive to do the best that I can. I loved this post! Thank you for sharing Professor Kelleher!

    -Elisa Gomez

    • Ron says:

      I’m glad to hear your current boss is letting you stretch and grow in your skills. A great example of a leader who cares about people’s development.

  • Megan Clements says:

    I like how you show that we can learn things even in bad situations, and use those situations to better ourselves. These things that you learn can even make you a better leader! My favorite one of the 7 things you can learn from a bad boss is lead by example. It is so hard to work for someone who says they want you to do a certain thing or act a certain way, and they do the opposite. I had a boss like that once, and it was really hard to act the way he wanted us to when he was not doing it himself.

  • Kelsey Hager says:

    I enjoyed reading about the examples you provided about people who persevered through their struggles all by keeping their faith in Christ. At least for me, in my fast-paced life, I often forget these real examples of how God helped those who never lost their faith and it encourages me to continue to develop my relationship with Him. From this I am reminded that perfect situations don’t exist because if we had the perfect plan then we would not have to trust in God. Our trust in God is the most important thing so maybe discouragement comes to us so that we remember our need for Christ.