Navigating around Noxious Leaders

What happens when the leader appointed over you is insecure and somewhat unpleasant to deal with? What happens if you are the noxious leader? Let’s deal with the first category, before we go to the second.

If you’re in the first category, there are three clear options:

First, ask for a transfer. I was known as a capable writer and I got transferred to another department to get it started. But I didn’t like the new boss, so I tweaked a connection and got myself out. This is one of the advantages of working in a big organisation and of being junior in ranking. There are more options.

Second, grit your teeth and bulldoze your way through. This was viable as the boss liked me, although I disliked his style. The positive factor was that I had established trust with him over time by constantly being able to meet expectations as well as taking over a project that another colleague had overtly rejected, to his great discomfiture. I was also very honest with him.

By God’s grace, I could handle the pressure for some time. When I was near the end of my tether, another more mature boss took over. Thank God.

Third, resign. This is a viable option when you find that what your boss wants doesn’t coincide with your design. As the saying goes, It’s like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It’s doing violence to who you are, and what God has designed you to be. It’s not a good situation to be in and it’s better to resign and look for another position — and so preserve your mental health — than stay and be miserable.

If you cannot change your situation, then it’s time to evaluate if God is trying to develop certain attributes in you that you don’t have yet. And the likely reason you don’t have it is that you never learned it from your family — the first place where you’re exposed to leadership, good and bad.

For instance, if one of your parents was controlling or inflexible, then it’s quite likely you’re going to repeat that behaviour in the workplace — it’s the only kind of “leadership” style that you know. And God allows you to lead a team and in a confrontation, a member calls you controlling and inflexible. Oops.

Or to remedy that awful controlling behaviour you so despise, you become so un-controlling and so flexible that your leader tells you that your team is out of control. Oops… again.

Then, what to do? Learn to balance both structure and freedom. Those are key values for me. In a previous article on forming a prayer team, I integrated both values in the way the team functioned https://wordpress.com/post/tree-of-healing.com/104

Agreement was also important — I spell out my working style and ensure the other person understands and agrees before moving ahead. Then, there’s unity. And with unity, there’s power to do God’s work (Psalm 133).

In God’s moulding process, I found out some of my key values: structure and freedom, agreement and unity. What are you finding out about yourself?

Having a Famous Friend

I have watched with disbelief as some people stumble over one another to make an impression on a well-known person, or try to be this leader’s “friend”. Others are intimidated and stay far away.

It was advantageous for me to have worked as a reporter for some time before going into the church world. The copydesk is a most egalitarian place. Editors and reporters alike are working for one common goal — get the news out for publication the next day. Hierarchy and status are set aside.

I also got used to interviewing a CEO one day, and next day, the man in the street. I found everyone to be interesting, everyone to have something to say.

Church was a huge contrast — it was hierarchical and there were people there who just wanted to be seen. So it took some time to figure out who were the people who genuinely wanted to help, and those who were there because of legitimacy issues.

I got to know some pretty good people through church. But I never presume on a friendship that may not be there. That is where I see people stumble.

Leaders are by nature charismatic and friendly. They hold attention on stage; they speak well, usually dress well, and are generally courteous. They can be famous in their area of specialty. Many are attracted to them, and try to find ways to connect with them, sometimes disastrously. A more patient leader may tolerate these intrusions, a more testy leader would immediately cut them out. The more famous the person is, the more testy he can become….

First, as I said, I never presume on a friendship that may not be there. Leaders can and do act friendly — they meet many people, it’s become second nature. But don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s a friend — he’s just friendly. If he has a public email, then email, ask your question, and thank him for his time when he does answer.

Basic courtesy goes a long way. So many people have forgotten basic courtesy — or perhaps they never learnt it — that when you’re courteous and considerate, you stand out.

Then, let the relationship develop — or not. They may be on the way to being a friend with you, but if you start acting familiar with them, getting bold or presumptuous, you risk a breach in the relationship. Don’t base your self-worth on having a famous friend. They’re people too; don’t treat them like an object, a trophy. They won’t like it.

Some leaders have helped me a lot, but they have also said to not hold onto them. Leaders are on a journey, they are going somewhere and your paths are likely to diverge. I put these altruistic leaders in the category of “friends for a season”, people willing to help you for some time. And of course, if they need your help, return the favor. Don’t let it be a one-way street.

If you need to contact them, ask, “How may I contact you?” And let them choose their mode of communication. Some of them are pursued by literally hundreds of people, and are rightfully reluctant to reveal their phone number, especially if they’ve just met you.

In the end, the famous person becomes your friend mainly because of common interests, common values, chemistry and trust. He knows you won’t namedrop him to try and boost your status among your friends and colleagues — I know someone who absolutely hates this and changed his email address when he found that strangers were bragging that they knew him personally because they could write him through his business email!

Be discreet, be trustworthy. The famous person who enjoys your emails may just decide to be your friend.

Working with Good Leaders

I am known for working well with some prominent leaders and sometimes am the target of jealousy because of that. 

While my enemies like to think I was plotting, planning and scheming, actually it was simpler than that. God was arranging a series of divine appointments all along.

By His direction, I joined a prominent organisation, and just over a year later, a mature, respected leader was appointed to lead it. Staff were generally happy about it and when he came, the first thing he did was set expectations. Our organisation, he said, was a big one and change had to be done slowly. He also set the tone of our interaction — we were not to act like fishwives, but were to address each other respectfully, regardless of our position. Then, he set about having one on one conversations with the staff.

Newly arrived and desiring to get things going ASAP, he wanted me to lead a key position. It would be a position of prominence and if I had been ambitious, I would have leaped at it. Except that I had a reservation and decided to tell him to direct his queries a certain direction.  And said no more.

Later, he came back with a look in his eye and immediately changed his plans — I had told him what the issue was, without telling him anything. He could see for himself. And also because I wasn’t fighting him when he wanted to lead in certain areas of my domain, he trusted me more.

As far as I was concerned, he could take the lead if he wanted to. He had made it clear he wanted the right to make the final decision on any matter as he would be taking the blame if anything went wrong. That was fair enough. He was a far cry from the insecure leaders I had to work with, who would take the credit for themselves when things went well, but blame the subordinate when things went awry.

We worked well because we had similar values.

Because I was a leader [of 50s, he was a leader of 5,000 (Exodus 18:21)], I also knew what a leader needed and because I was an introvert — and he even more so — I knew he needed space and I gave it to him.

I respected his privacy and his boundaries. And he also respected mine. Because of his unofficial mentoring, I became a better leader. From him, I learned how to have friends in the office without practicing favoritism. He was the most humane and effective leader I had ever met.