Your Bad Boss Didn’t Intend to Be Bad (and How You Can Avoid the Same Fate)

by  David Dye  |  Self Leadership

Do You Know This Person?

Have you ever met an aspiring leader who says, “I want to be a horrible boss.”


Me neither.

I’m not saying there isn’t a random psychopath or two out there, but for the most part, if you have a lousy leader in your life:

Your bad boss didn’t intend to be bad.

Think about that for a moment.

Let it sink in; it’s important.

They might have taken the position for many reasons, but their goal was never to be a jerk, to fail, or to make life miserable for their team.

If you’ve ever had a bad boss, those awful outcomes are byproducts, never goals.

Why It Matters

“So what,” you might say. “That doesn’t excuse their behavior.”

No, it certainly doesn’t.

But it should serve as a warning.

If you’re an aspiring leader or in a leadership role now, you certainly don’t intend to be a bad boss.

Neither did they!

How is it that so many managers, leaders, and supervisors get it so wrong?

The answer to this question is crucial to your leadership success. That’s why it matters.

Where We Go Wrong

I’ve spent thousands of hours coaching leaders as well as learning from my own mistakes. These are the things I’ve observed that most frequently trip up leaders:

1) Misaligned Motivations

Why do you want to lead?

The most common reasons are the five “P”s:

  • Power – you want the ability to tell people what to do
  • Prestige – you gain a sense of well-being or pleasure from the title
  • Purse – you want the increased pay that often comes along with the role
  • People – you want to serve the team or organization
  • Purpose – you want to achieve a specific mission

Many leaders who turn into bad bosses take their roles for one of the first three reasons (or a combination of them).

The problem is that these motivations are misaligned with what it takes to succeed.

Leaders accomplish results with a team.

Relationships and results: those are the critical motivators for successful leadership.

I don’t mean to suggest that the first three won’t or shouldn’t ever exist, but if they are your primary motivations, you’re going to struggle.

2) Biology

Our brains are built with sophisticated mechanisms to keep us alive. Specifically, when it comes to self-preservation, our fight, flight, and freeze responses work quite well.

However, when you want to lead a team, those hard-wired tendencies can easily sabotage your credibility and influence with your people.

When you are stressed (as you certainly will be), you simply can’t rely on your hard-wired emotional reactions. They may keep you alive, but often at the cost of the very relationships you need to succeed.

3) Sociology

We all learn less effective leadership strategies from our parents, from teachers, and from our own managers or supervisors.

It is easy to continue doing what we’ve learned from people we respected. It takes significant emotional effort to do something else.

4) Missing Tools

Leadership includes stress. Results matter. People are counting on you.

When the pressure is on, do you have tools that help you work with your team, that build your credibility, that increase your influence and the team’s performance?

Or do you fall back to the trusted (but self-sabotaging tools) of your biology and sociology?

No Excuses

There are many reasons your bad boss turned out the way they did.

Your bad boss didn’t intend to be bad.

I’m not excusing their behavior…just asking you not to use it as an excuse for your behavior.

The answer to a lack of leadership is leadership.

Now that you know the issues that can derail you, take responsibility and begin doing the things you wish your boss would do.

  • Want encouragement? Start encouraging.
  • Want vision? Start asking everyone (your boss included) what they believe is possible.
  • Want more training? Seek it out – if not from your supervisor, from other mentors, coaches, or people outside the organization.

You can change the culture…maybe not immediately, and maybe not for the entire organization, but you certainly can do it for your team.

At best, you will change your team, the organization, and be recognized for your leadership…

At worst, you’ve changed yourself, increased your influence, and gained skills that will serve you in the future while also making life better for the people around you.

So no excuses:

Be the leader you want your boss to be!

Your Turn

Leave a comment and share with us:

What strategies do you use to ensure you don’t get tripped up by misaligned motivations, biology, sociology, or missing leadership tools?

Take care,

David Dye

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar

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About The Author

Articles By david-dye
I work with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done with fewer headaches.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Gregory K Hernandez  |  19 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Tremendous insight and thank you for sharing. The same concepts apply to being a parent, or any significant relationships. The bottom-line is we can change our perspective, and our behavior.

David M. Dye  |  19 Feb 2014  |  Reply


Thank you for those kind words. You’re right on about extending the concepts…because leadership is a relationship. Common principles apply – but sometimes we forget that, don’t we? :)

Take care!


Oskar  |  19 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Hi David… great article. What comes to me when I read this are 3 things
1 – It is time employees become responsible in the workplace
2 – Emotional Intelligence truly plays a role
3 – Stress cannot be avoided. When managed, it can be very healthy and in some cases has people be innovative

David M. Dye  |  20 Feb 2014  | 


Thanks for the reflections. I agree with every point you make – the ability to productively manage our stress is both a form of emotional intelligence as well as a critical leadership skill.

Take care,


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Ruth Schwartz  |  23 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Thanks for this one David,

I agree. I agree that the arrogant jerk doesn’t mean to be a jerk. I agree that jerkdom is based on learned behaviors and a lack of tools and knowledge. I don’t, however, agree that it is in the hands of the employee and their accountability except in one small way… allow this leader to be vulnerable. Sure, an increase in an employee’s value will make this more likely to happen. But it is not the employee’s fault unless they become equally a jerk. Thanks for your insight here. I believe that we need to unlearn to meet our newest workplace challenges and that it starts, here in the hands of the boss.

David M. Dye  |  27 Feb 2014  |  Reply


Thank you for the observations. You are so right that ‘unlearning’ is a critical part of our journey to effective leadership. Also, to clarify, I would never place the responsibility for a supervisor’s “jerkdom” on their employees. Rather, the employee is responsible for their own leadership.

Thanks again!


Ruth Schwartz  |  27 Feb 2014  | 

You didn’t blame employees but other commenters referred to accountability by employees as a part of the problem. Thus my two part response. Thanks again. Ruth

David M. Dye  |  27 Feb 2014  | 

Hi Ruth,

I see what you’re saying. I had read that comment as taking responsibility for their leadership and I can see your interpretation too. Thanks for clarifying!

Take care,


Emma Jane Santa  |  24 Feb 2014  |  Reply

I’m curious about personal perceptions and your points in #1. In the incidents where my bosses went “bad” each of them stated that they were in it for the people or the purpose – however, perceptions of myself and others made it look like it was power and prestige.

This made me think, what is happening between our intent to do good, and how we are perceived by others? Is it a personal branding issue? Are we not communicating enough? How can we proactively make sure our actions reinforce our intent in the eyes of others?

In reading the 360 Degree Leader by John Maxwell, I found myself thinking – what is the difference in “Leading Up” and being a champion follower? Have we lost touch with what it means to be a good follower?

Thanks for the thought provoking post!

David M. Dye  |  27 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Emma Jane,

You bring up such a good point. I think the answer to your question is the skill of self-awareness. This is a critical leadership skill.If you don’t have it, you’ve got to cultivate accountability and learn it. I’ve written about this more (How Not to Walk Naked…) at http://trailblazeinc.com/2011/08/6-ways-to-not-walk-naked-down-street/

This is one of the reasons Daniel Goleman’s work around emotional intelligence is so vital for effective leaders.

The good follower question is related, yet different. I like to say that we are all accountable to someone (autocratic national dictators not withstanding). How we show up in that accountable absolutely influences our leadership of our own teams.

Thanks for the contribution!


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