Throughout most of my career, I have worked for fantastic leaders.
My very first real boss was a shining example of a great leader, and I count my lucky stars that I ended up in her team. She saw potential in me, knew how to bring out my best and helped me get my next job.
I was spoilt because everyone I worked for over the following years did the same. Not only that, they genuinely cared about me, the team and the business.
So I was a bit shocked when later on in my career, I wound up working for a challenging boss. I’m grateful I did because I discovered a lot about myself. I built more resilience, I learnt how to pick my battles, I observed what not to do, and I continued to be the type of leader I wanted to be.
How can you lead well when you’re being led by a challenging boss?
There are three things you need – an oxygen mask, a filter and a mirror.
An oxygen mask
Your number one job is to bring the best out in your team and your team members.
To do that, you need to show up as the best version of yourself everyday which can be difficult if your wellbeing is being impacted by the way you are treated by your boss or anything else for that matter.
So the first thing you need is an oxygen mask and as they say in the safety demonstrations on planes, put your mask on first.
How do you get the air you need to centre yourself and truly show up?
It’s different for everyone and very personal. Maybe it’s exercise or meditation. Perhaps it’s listening to music on the way to work, or sitting on a park bench for 5 minutes while you drink your morning coffee.
It doesn’t need to be something that takes a lot of time – just something that works for you and is about you. And feel free to be unapologetic about doing it. The people in your life will be better off because you did.
The next item you need is a filter.
You’re smart enough to work out what needs to be filtered down to your team and what doesn’t.
The way you feel about your boss sits in the “what doesn’t” category. If you need to vent about your boss, find a friendly peer who is experiencing the same challenges or someone outside of work. Never vent to your team.
Part of your job is to filter what comes down from your boss, and your peer group, so that what you share with your team is constructive information that helps them do their jobs better.
You will inevitably become the conduit between the team you are leading and your peer group leadership team. For example, I used to run a marketing function, but I was also part of the executive leadership team.
Sometimes, a consensus will be formed at the leadership table, that you may not agree with 100%. In these situations, it is best to put your case forward at the time, before the decision’s made. Once the decision is final, it’s essential to inform your team about it in the most positive way you can. Your team needs to feel like you, your boss and your peers are on the same page and can work together to make smart decisions. Otherwise, they lose confidence in you all.
A mirror is for reflection.
Why is this important when you’re being led by a challenging boss?
Firstly, so you can remember that you are not them and you do not have to lead in the same way they do. I love Simon Sinek’s quote “Be the boss you wish you had”.
If you’re feeling brave, also try asking yourself “is it me”? Chances are it’s not, but it never hurts to reflect on whether there is something you could be doing to improve the relationship.
It can also be useful to take some time to reflect on how you can help them. Is there a way you can metaphorically hold a mirror up to them and help them see things they can’t see themselves?
So many people tell me their boss is a nice person but a terrible people leader. There is a big chance that they are entirely unaware of the impacts their behaviours have on you and others.
Everyone has blind spots, and unless someone points them out to you, they are hard to see. If you have an ok relationship with your boss, try giving them some honest feedback. They’ll probably thank you for it. Just pick your timing well.
And remember that everyone also has strengths. What can you learn from your boss? What are they good at that you’re not? What is it about their leadership style that’s not working, and how will you use those observations to make sure you do not make the same mistakes with your team?
And remember – you’re awesome, and you’ve got this!
If your physical or mental health is being affected, please reach out to someone for help. Talk to your HR department, take advantage of any free and confidential counselling services your company offers or seek external advice from a professional.
“Be the boss you wish you had”
“I am thankful for all those difficult people in my life. They have shown me exactly who I do not want to be.”
In this podcast, I share more about my experience of working with a challenging boss, how I survived and what I learnt. And I add a little more flavour to the idea of using an oxygen mask, filter and mirror.
You can access it on the Podcast page, on Spotify, or on your favourite podcast app.