“All I want for Christmas is a new job!” my friend exclaimed as I sat down next to her at the coffee shop. She had called me 30 minutes ago, asking to see me before she had a complete mental breakdown.
“What has your boss done this time?” I asked.
“She yelled at me again in a staff meeting! I asked about her priorities for the next fiscal year, and she bit my head off! I just wanted to know what we are doing in the next few months. For the last year, we just seem to be drifting around. It’s so frustrating!”
“How did the rest of the team react?” I asked before taking a drink of coffee. I knew the answer before she began to talk.
“They just sat there trying not to look at me. Just blank expressions on their faces.” She slumped in her seat. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s giving you the three gifts of bad leadership,” I said. “Just in time for the holiday season.”
“What does that mean?”
“All bad leaders give out the same three gifts. When you receive all three gifts, you know it’s time to leave. Or, unless the leader takes the gifts back.”
I took another drink and continued. “The first gift is distrust. Distrust is a gift bag full of glass shards. If trust is the lifeblood of an organization, the distrust gift gives you a thousand cuts that slowly bleeds the trust out of teams and organizations.”
“No one trusts anyone in my office! My boss and teammates throw me under the bus so much, they’ve installed a bus stop in my office!” She laughed at her own joke. “What’s the next gift?” asked my friend.
“Psychological danger. You’ve heard about psychological safety, which is closely related to trust. If you have a psychologically safe office, people are willing to try new things and develop while knowing that your team and your boss have your back.”
“That’s not my office,” my friend sighed. “My boss even has a coffee cup that says, ‘Failure is not an option.’ Oh, she says she loves innovation. But, at the first mistake, she will shut you down!”
I shook my head. “Hence the second gift of psychological danger. Psychological danger is a closed gift bag that shakes and growls at you as you come closer to it. People are in constant fear of attack from that gift.”
I then pulled out an envelope from my backpack and wrote on the front before sealing it and handing it to my friend.
“It says Vision.’ What’s this about?” she asked.
“There’s nothing in here.”
“Exactly! A lack of vision is the third gift. Despite all of the training and advice given to new leaders, bad leaders consistently ignore the necessity of having a vision. Or their vision is just a bunch of clichés that sound profound.”
“Like, ‘failure is not an option,’” offered my friend.
“Right! A good vision is inspirational and paints a picture of the future of the organization. People know where they are going and how to get there. When your boss reacted so violently to your question about her vision, she was giving you the third gift because she has no vision to give you. You said the emperor has no clothes. And, in a climate of distrust and psychological danger, she didn’t want to appear naked in front of her team.”
My friend sat up straight in her chair. “What should I do?”
“Usually, I suggest seeing what you can do to send the gifts back. Maybe have a frank talk with your boss if you think she can grow. But, given that this has been a while and it appears that your boss isn’t going to improve, I suggest getting out before the three gifts damage you.”
“OK! I will start my job search today. But, how do I avoid winding up with another boss who gives out the same three gifts?’
“The Google has numerous articles on spotting bad bosses during interviews,” I said. “When they ask you if you have any questions during the interview, ask what their vision is for the organization. If they don’t have a clear vision that can be easily communicated, I would have serious concerns about taking a job there. That’s my first sign that the other gifts of bad leadership may soon follow.”
“Thank you! This has been great!” She smiled. “How did you discover these three gifts?”
“Observing bad leaders in action. Bad leaders act in a variety of ways. Still, they always seem to have the same effects on their people and organizations. Just remember that if you move into a leadership position, don’t re-gift these three gifts to your people.”