How to Learn from Bad Leadership Experiences

By: Josh

Who is the worst boss or leader you have ever had? What made him or her the worst?

More importantly, what did you learn from them and that experience? Have you thought about how you have grown from it?

We have all had bad bosses, poor leaders over us, and less-than-ideal work experiences because of them. We wonder how that person made it into the senior levels or a particular leadership position. Yet, out of self-preservation or the desire to avoid drawing attention, we simply put our head down and muscle through the challenge of working for them.

I am no exception. I vividly recall a season early in my career where I felt surrounded by poor examples of leaders – 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. I often felt alone on an island with no leader or mentor investing in me. Over time, I became frustrated and disenfranchised.

But years later, I’ve found that season to be a critical crucible experience that was one of the most definitive influences in shaping me to be 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. These crucibles can help us become more authentic as a leader.

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

How to Act

Before we can explore ways to maximize the learning from our bad leadership crucibles, we must ensure that we are fulfilling our professional and leader obligations during them. Just because we suffer a bad boss or poor leader does not give us license to act unprofessionally in response. So, first and foremost, we should apply a few personal attitudes and behaviors.

Keep the 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 permeate throughout your people. We must start here by showing up every day refusing to be a mere victim of our circumstance. We don’t go to our team and blame our boss. We do not complain. We should maintain professional bearing and composure to be the example of leadership others can look to, even if you are not getting that from your boss.

Control and 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 about what we can and cannot control in our particular circumstances. For the things we cannot control, we should deliberately choose to exercise patience, mitigate their negative effects when appropriate, and refrain from complaining. Since we are dealing with things we cannot inherently control, we must 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 over you, 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.

Recognize your professional responsibility: Loyalty up and 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, regardless of personal feelings or attitudes. Period. This means we do not complain about our boss down our organizational chart, 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, even in hard situations. 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. We are all human and we all still need outlets to vent about frustrating aspects of life. So, ensure you have one or a few outlets in your life. Just ensure it is an appropriate outlet, personally and professionally. Easy examples include a spouse, significant other, a professional and respected colleague, or mentor. Poor outlets include venting to subordinate employees or recklessly on social media. The best approach to these relationships is to engage in productive conversations regarding our challenges, not merely complaining. What is the issue? Why does it matter? And what should we do about it moving forward so we respond thoughtfully and professionally?

How to Learn

From my own crucibles, I have found a few important behaviors to maximize my learning and ultimately create a positive impact on my own leadership and growth.

Reflect for clarity and 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 about concepts like: What exactly makes this person a ‘bad leader’ or what are 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 and space to personally think on these. Further, if you choose to process and reflect this way, you can 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 our crucible experiences. And when I say give it time, I mean months and even years. It has taken me years of continued structured and unstructured thinking on bad leadership crucibles to achieve clarity on what I learned, what that experience means to me now, and how it has 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 believe 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 to develop their own leadership capacity. Your story can provide perspective to help educate, prepare, and equip others hoping that they can learn from a story rather than having to endure their own, similar traumatic experience. My leader development story affects my leader development approach towards others – I don’t want others to have to learn the hard way from poor leadership experiences like I did earlier in my career.

Put yourself in their shoes and assume positive intent. All behavior has a motive. I’ve found that most negative behaviors exist to fill some sort of personal need. Moreover, all behavior makes sense with enough information. This even applies to our bad bosses. The more we can step out of ourselves and attempt to think like they think, the more we might be able to understand their behavior and the motives or history behind it. This allows us to deconstruct the situation and its contributing factors more productively, improving our ability to learn and grow from it.

Remember that every experience is an opportunity for development, even the challenging crucibles of poor leadership. In these crucibles, we can make a choice: merely be a victim of our circumstance or take ownership of our situation and choose to learn from it. So, choose to lead well, regardless of our circumstances or conditions. Our people and our organizations deserve it.


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