Learning from Bad Examples: When Poor Leadership Can Be Valuable

By Sergeant Swivel

Responsibilities of Leadership

In many organizations, one of the primary duties of leaders is to develop their subordinates. Air Force Handbook 36-2618, “The Enlisted Force Structure,” or, as it’s known among Airmen, “The Little Brown Book,” lays out responsibilities associated with each tier of the enlisted forces, making sure to note that the first three responsibilities of a Noncomissioned Officer (NCO) include leading and developing subordinates, mentoring those same subordinates, and helping their subordinates to develop their resiliency in order to help accomplish the mission. Once they reach the Senior NCO tier, their first responsibility, in addition to all NCO responsibilities, is to serve as a role model for others. These responsibilities are listed before anything having to do with the NCO or SNCO’s occupation in the Air Force, whether they are a Loadmaster, a Crew Chief, a Plumber, a Paralegal, or anything else.

Most people who have served in the military, or likely any other career, can probably remember leaders who helped them succeed or who set good examples. Whether that was in demonstrating the best way to accomplish a task, helping them out when they had problems, or giving them valuable advice on how to improve themselves or deal with challenges, these people made great role models to look up to, and hopefully to emulate when you have subordinates of your own. Of course, I’m not here to write about those folks, but rather about the other guys.

Bad Examples

There’s a Demotivational Poster – part of a series of parodies of the motivational posters that used to be quite popular – showing a shipwreck, with a caption suggesting that your purpose in life might be to “serve as an example to others.” It is a simple and unfortunate fact in life that people make mistakes, whether due to poor instincts, poor training, poor judgement, or simply poor character. When that happens, others will often discuss those mistakes, viewing with the benefit of calm hindsight all of the things that went wrong and what should have been done differently. Which brings me to my central point: As one NCO told me when I was a brand new airman, you learn from your good leaders and you learn from your bad leaders. The important thing is learning which is which, and whether you want role models or cautionary tales.

We’ve all had bad bosses and leaders. Some were verbally or physically abusive of their subordinates, while others abused their authority by having their troops run personal errands for them or to coerce them into taking unethical actions themselves. Then there were those simply unwilling to stick their necks out to help their people when they needed it, or else chose not to stick their necks out at all, becoming deadbeat bosses who were never seen and rarely provided mentorship or feedback.

Learning Right From Wrong

So how can we learn from such people? Well, first figure out that they’re doing something wrong. If you don’t know what a good leader looks like, you might not recognize a bad one when you see one. Also, it’s easy for people to justify poor leadership. An abusive leader might be “trying to toughen us up,” while it could be said of a lazy boss that “he doesn’t micromanage us!” Now, the hard part can be finding that fuzzy border between good and bad. A boss leading you through an intense workout to help you improve your PT score might be a good thing, but a boss forcing you to over-train and injure yourself, or to violate a medical waiver to PT despite injuries, is definitely doing more harm than good. A boss who trusts you to accomplish your tasks and mostly stays out of your hair could be good, but one who doesn’t care to train you properly or check on your work at all might simply be negligent. A lot of this will come down to judgement and circumstances, and you may very well not recognize a bad leader until well after the fact.

So, once you’ve identified a bad leader, what can you learn now? Try to figure out what they were doing wrong as a leader, and try to figure out why they made that mistake. Maybe they were simply imitating the leaders who trained them. Maybe they’re overtasked, or distracted by personal concerns, or in some cases blinded by their own prejudices. On rare occasions, you may have a boss who is simply malicious towards others. Then, once you get this far, you get to the really hard part: Determine if you might be a bad leader.

The First Step in Fixing a Problem

Self-reflection is a difficult trait to develop, but an indispensable one, especially for leaders. People often assume that they’re doing just fine and never stop to reflect on what they need to improve on. Of course, it is also common for people to assume that they’re doing terribly, and everyone either knows it or is about to figure it out, something known as “Imposter Syndrome.” This is why the “Little Brown Book” that I mentioned before also specifies that an NCO should provide feedback and counseling to their subordinates.

In the absence of that feedback, or ideally in addition to it, developing a healthy practice of checking yourself (before you wreck yourself) will help you to find your problem areas and their causes. If you are doing something you shouldn’t, or failing to meet some responsibility, realizing this is the first step to fixing it. And if you can identify root causes, such as being overloaded with work, school, and family, you can reach out for help or re-prioritize your responsibilities. If it turns out that you’ve just fallen into bad habits due to complacency, these periodic self-checks might just be the way to jolt yourself back onto the sometimes arduous path of being a quality leader.

About the Author: This piece is from the able hands of Sergeant Swivel, who can be found on Twitter  @SergeantSwivel

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