Tomorrow is the official publication day for the Good Boss, Bad Boss paperback. It contains a new chapter called "What Great Bosses Do," which digs into some of the lessons I learned about leadership since publishing the hardback in September 2010. I have already published excerpts from the new chapter on power poisoning, bad apples, and embracing the mess at Fast Company.
As I am teaching all day tomorrow, I am publishing another here today excerpt here to mark the occasion. It considers one of the most personally troubling lessons I've learned (or at least am on the verge of believing). I am starting to wonder, as the headline says, if nice but incompetent bosses are even worse (at least in some ways and at certain times) than competent assholes.
Now, to be clear, they both suck and having to choose between the two is sort of like deciding whether to be kicked in the stomach or kicked in the head. And I have even suggested here that there might be certain advantages to having a lousy boss (and readers came up with numerous other great reasons). But I have seen so much damage done by lousy bosses who are really nice people in recent years that I am starting to wonder...
Here is the excerpt from the new chapter (the 4th of 9 lessons):
4. Bosses who are civilized and caring, but incompetent, can be really horrible.
Perhaps because I am the author of The No Asshole Rule, I kept running into people—journalists, employees,project managers, even a few CEOs—who picked a fight with me. They would argue that good bosses are more than caring human beings; they make sure the job gets done. I responded by expressing agreement and pointing out this book defines a good boss as one who drives performance and treats people humanely. Yet, as I started digging into the experiences that drove my critics to raise this point— and thought about some lousy bosses—I realized I hadn’t placed enough emphasis on the damage done, as one put it, by “a really incompetent, but really nice, boss.”
As The No Asshole Rule shows, if you are a boss who is a certified jerk, you may be able to maintain your position so long as your charges keep performing at impressive levels. I warned, however, that your enemies are lying in wait, and once you slip up you are likely to be pushed aside with stunning speed. In contrast, one reason that baseball coach Leo Durocher’s famous saying “Nice guys finish last” is sometimes right is that when a boss is adored by followers (and peers and superiors, too) they often can’t bring themselves to bad-mouth, let alone fire or demote, that lovely person.
People may love that crummy boss so much they constantly excuse, or don’t even notice, clear signs of incompetence. For example, there is one senior executive I know who is utterly lacking in the necessary skills or thirst for excellence his job requires. He communicates poorly (he rarely returns even important e-mails and devotes little attention to developing the network of partners his organization needs), lacks the courage to confront—let alone fire—destructive employees, and there are multiple signs his organization’s reputation is slipping. But he is such a lovely person, so caring and so empathetic, that his superiors can’t bring themselves to fire him.
There are two lessons here. The first is for bosses. If you are well-liked, civilized, and caring, your charms provide
protective armor when things go wrong. Your superiors are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt as well
as second and third chances—sometimes even if you are incompetent. I would add, however, that if you are a truly crummy boss—but care as much for others as they do for you—stepping aside is the noble thing to do. The second lesson is for those who oversee lovable losers. Doing the dirty work with such bosses is distasteful. But if rehabilitation has failed—or things are falling apart too fast to risk it—the time has come to hit the delete button.