My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Leadership Lesson

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Leadership Development
My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Leadership Lesson

I made an employee cry. Sort of by accident. Sort of on purpose. He had ticked me off. He was out of line. In retrospect, I realize I wanted to let him know not to mess with me.

I was an experienced HR manager. I received a snarky email from an employee. He was responding to a message I had sent out to all organization members. The topic was a hot button for him. He twisted my words, put in it an email and copied his boss and a few more people.

What he didn’t know is that he had now pressed one of my hot buttons. That’s when someone twists my words deliberately to make me look stupid.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

During this same time period I was training managers on how to talk to their employees. I was training them specifically on how to ask questions before jumping to conclusions.

I distinctly remember thinking I could apply that approach with this employee. But he was so out of line, this was an exception. He needed to pay a price. As you can imagine, I ended up paying a price too.

I Rued The Day

I set up a meeting with him to discuss the topic at hand. I basically told him that it was my prerogative to make the decision I shared in that message. I didn’t owe him an explanation.

I didn’t leave it there though. I don’t know what else I said to escalate the situation. I’m probably blocking it out. I do know that when I left his face was so red it looked like his head was going to explode.

His boss called me soon after. She asked me what I did to make her employee cry. She said she had never seen him that way before.

My boss called me and asked me what I did. He told me to leave the man a message apologizing and then avoid talking to that employee from now on. The employee thought the HR manager had it out for him. That is not anything a leader wants to hear, especially when it is earned.

I Was Not A Leader That Day

I had called myself a leader, but I was not a leader that day. Upon reflection, it felt like something else had taken over my good sense. On the other hand I knew what I was planning, and I did it anyway. I guess that is the power of a deeply rooted button, when pushed.

This got my attention, especially with his boss’s and my boss’s response. I respected them and they were telling me to back off. How I wish I could take it back. But the damage was done, irreparably. I am so sorry that employee was in the position to be the target of my very bad judgment that day.

A Leadership Lesson Paid Forward

Several years later I was training a group of managers on leadership skills. We were talking about values, about your own vision for yourself as a leader, and the importance of self-awareness.

I found myself telling the story of the day I made that employee cry on purpose. The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I wondered if I had made a mistake with being so transparent.

I told them the story because I wanted them to understand that a leader can’t afford to be self-indulgent, like I was. We also need to keep in mind how employees view our perceived or real authority. It is up to us to be super conscious of not abusing the privilege of a title.

Being Up Front Pays Off

We completed that day’s training session. One participant who had been hanging back came up to me. She said she had been apprehensive and wondered if the training was just a bunch of platitudes. She wondered if the trainers had real world experience. She said that after she heard that story from me, she was ready to take me seriously.

I think that’s the day I could begin to truly claim the role of leader, by being willing to confidently admit that mistake, how I learned from it, and to publicly share my experience as a cautionary tale.

What reminds you what it means to be a leader?
Photo Credit: Gratisophography

About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers:  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Chery Gegelman  |  08 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Mary – Thank you for sharing your humanness. Your mistake. Your heartache. Your learning. We are all human. We will all make mistakes. It’s our ability to own them, learn from them, and use them to help others that shows what our hearts are really made of.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Thanks Chery. That means a lot coming from you.

Jane Perdue  |  08 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Mary — terrific contribution on many fronts: being strong enough to be vulnerable and share, telling an impactful story that eloquently drives home an important leadership lesson, and reinforcing the message that doing-wrong-because-I’ve-been-wronged isn’t what character-based leaders do. Well done!

Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Thank you, Jane. I so appreciate your comments.

Paul LaRue  |  08 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Mary, love this post for 2 reasons:

1) You’re transparency and willingness to expose a failure yet teach us from it. So real, and powerful, and mostly, relatable.

2) Relating to the title of my wife’s favorite children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”.

Thanks for leading us today!


Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Thank you, Paul, for commenting. I’m feeling a little raw today after telling that story so publicly and you and the LCG group coming through with support is powerfully helpful.

Jane  |  09 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Mary, you’re a rare breed. We need more leaders like you. What I love most about your post is that you looked at yourself and a) admitted your actions weren’t just poor leadership, they were unacceptable on a personal level. b) you used the experience to know you didn’t want to become that kind of person or leader. No blaming. Admitting error is the first step to correction. You can’t repair something if you don’t recognize it as broken.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  09 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Jane Anderson, thank you so much for your comments.

Jon Stallings  |  09 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Great post Mary, So many bloggers give us so called easy steps to success but we live in a real world. A real world where things often go wrong. A real world in which we often get it wrong. Thanks for sharing your story.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  09 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Thanks for your comments, Jon. It was time for me to share this.

John Smith  |  15 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mary … sorry I am late responding to this and sharing it, but the message will be valid a thousand years from now, so …

Your honesty and candor about this episode in your leadership journey is both touching and very inspiring. We have probably all did and said things we later regretted in our dealings with others, but you have beautifully illustrated how learning from our mistakes can benefit us, and others.

I am reminded here of something that was pounded into me as a young Army officer “a few years back”: You are a leader, clearly identified and looked to by all. You don’t get the luxury of being self-indulgent or putting yourself first. Lead from the front, eat last, and never forget why you are here.”

Your story well illustrates what can happen when we indulge ourselves, as I have done more times than I should have.

As always, your thoughts are enjoyable to read, clear in the message, and just shout to be shared with a broader audience:).


Mary C. Schaefer  |  15 Dec 2015  |  Reply

John, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I was looking forward to them.

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