Toxic, counterproductive, ineffective. These are all synonyms for less-than-ideal leadership examples. But bottom line is, we essentially view these as bad leadership.

We have all had experiences with bad bosses and senior leaders. We wonder how they made it into that position all while putting our head down to muscle through the challenge of leading under and working for them. For many of us, we can identify such experiences multiple times over our careers.

I am no exception. I vividly recall a season early in my career where I felt surrounded by poor leadership examples – my boss was a nice person, but not a proficient and recognized leader within the organization; I did not receive clear guidance, development, or support. As a younger professional and leader at the time, I was less mature and thus was angry and disenfranchised.

But years later, I’ve found that season to be a critical crucible experience that was one of the most definitive things in creating the leader I am today. A crucible is a situation of severe trial leading to the creation of something new. Such experiences build in us the ability to engage others in creating shared meaning, a distinctive and compelling voice, integrity and a strong set of values, and an increased adaptive capacity [1].

So, while the crucible of bad leadership experiences in our lives is frustrating, intense, and traumatic, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of these in shaping our growth as leaders and our ability to use it to impact others in the future. We just need to know how to act within these experiences and how to learn from them.

How to Act

Before we can explore ways to maximize the learning from our bad leadership crucible experiences, we must ensure that we are fulfilling our professional and leader obligations during them. We must first and foremost apply a few personal leader attitudes and behaviors.

  • Mindset – We are Not Victims of Our Circumstances: Everything else within this article must be predicated on this idea. We cannot think, feel, and act as mere victims of our circumstance without any ability to shape or control certain dynamics or outcomes. No one can take away your ability to choose your attitude. It will guide your behaviors and percolate to your people. We must start here by showing up every day refusing to be a mere victim of our circumstance.
  • Control & Shape What You Can: In all things within life and leadership, there will always be things we can and cannot control. We must be clear on what we can and cannot control in our particular circumstances. For the things we cannot: we will be patient with, mitigate, and not complain about. But we will then pour our leader efforts to controlling and shaping what we can with whom we can. If you are the manager of a small project team with a poor department head in charge of your team (and other teams), you will focus on and pour into the things you can shape within your team. You can work to make your team the best team possible regardless of larger department conditions.
  • Our Professional Responsibility – Loyalty Up & Across: If our boss or senior leaders are not violating legal, moral, or ethical standards, we have a professional responsibility to remain loyal to them. Period. Regardless of personal feelings or attitudes. This means we do not complain about our boss down the chain of command, we don’t speak poorly about our boss to others within the organization, and we continue to support their priorities.
  • Apply a Growth Mindset: We must demonstrate an ability and willingness to learn from our experiences. We recognize that intelligence and leadership ability are not fixed but can be gained; we know that learning is valuable and can occur in all situations – including bad or crucible ones.
  • Have an Appropriate Outlet if Needed: We are all human and we all still need outlets to vent about frustrating aspects of life. Just ensure it is an appropriate outlet, personally and professionally. Easy examples include a spouse / significant other or a professional, respected colleague.

How to Learn

From my own bad leadership crucibles, I have found a few important behaviors to maximize the learning from and positive impact of these on my own leadership and growth.

  • Reflect for Clarity & Perspective: We need to deliberately think through the issue(s) at hand, what they mean to us, and why they matter. We must process through these experiences beyond merely venting or complaining. We need to think critically on concepts like: What exactly makes this person a ‘bad leader’ or the things that I don’t appreciate about their leadership? What are the targeted attitudes and behaviors that contribute to this effect? What impact is it having on people and the organization? What would I do differently in their place? How can I patch this into my own leadership moving forward? We need to dedicate time to personally think on these. Further, if you choose to process and reflect this way, you can and should talk out your thoughts with a trusted peer coach or mentor. Ultimately, lessons that come from these reflections can help continue to shape our own leadership philosophy, by clearly defining things that we won’t do or become as a leader.
  • Give it Time: I have also learned that we need to be patient in achieving clarity through our learning and reflecting from such experiences. And when I say give it time, I mean potentially years. It has taken me years of continued deliberate and nondeliberate thinking on bad leadership crucibles to achieve clarity on what I learned, what that experience means to me now, and how it has impacted me and shaped my leadership. So be patient in cultivating the rich lessons from these challenging, but important leadership experiences.
  • Make it a Story…and Tell It: Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead, says, “One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.” I think the greatest thing to come out of experiencing bad leadership crucibles is the ability to craft it into a story, serving as a concrete experience for others as a means to develop their leadership capacity. Your story can provide perspective to help prepare, educate, and equip others hoping that they can learn from a story versus a similar traumatic experience. My leader development story effects my leader development approach towards others – I don’t want others to learn the hard way like I did early in my career from poor leadership experiences.

So, lead well – regardless of our circumstances or conditions!

Learn More

You can explore the below resources if interested in learning more about developmental experiences, crucibles, and leadership mindsets.


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