For All the Bad Leaders

I know the chances are slim that you will ever read this. Reading reflections on poor leadership would require a kind of humility that I don’t think you possess. Even if you did happen to come across it by accident, even if you possibly agree with some of the things I say, you don’t have the self-awareness required to know that I’m talking about you. 

I know you don’t look inward, because of how you behave outwardly.

See, self-reflection is hard. And it’s sometimes painful. If there’s never pain, you’re not doing it properly. True self-reflection means looking at your flaws. Looking at the ways you may have hurt people, deliberately or not. Owning the part you play in maintaining the biases and inequities of our entire society. Acknowledging that you are where you are in part because of privilege. 

It means recognizing that you always have the capacity to be better. That there is still much you don’t know. That you’ve made many mistakes. That you have a lot of growing to do.

It means using your understanding to take purposeful action. To walk the walk, every day, even when you sometimes slip.

And it requires a kind of courage that you have never possessed.

To be sure, you are an expert at talking the talk. You can speak quite confidently about leadership, about the qualities that are necessary to support your employees and drive growth. You know how to discuss the institutional issues that contribute to the demoralization and depression of staff. You’ll make lovely speeches, about how much you appreciate your employees, about the value of respect and collaboration. You have the capability to sit down with your employees, look them in the eyes, and tell them that you care deeply. Yet it’s all an empty sphere, a shiny coating over a hollow middle. You are a master at the fakery of empathy.

Talk is easy. Change is hard. 

You always take the easy way.

In fact, change is more than hard. It’s a threat to your very existence. When you have learned to play the current game so well, to leverage your privilege and your gift for manipulation into gain after gain, and to convince yourself that you have deserved it all, change would be a disaster. Change would mean that your incompetence would no longer be overlooked because of your fast-talking. Change would mean that talented women and people of color would be recognized over you. Change would mean no more promotions just for talking a big game. Change would mean no more failing upward.

Change would mean taking an honest look at who you are and how you got there.

I can see why that scares you. If I had bodies in my wake, it would scare me too.

You are racist and sexist. You will never admit it, and will act deeply outraged if you are ever called out, but once again, your behavior speaks for itself.

Despite publicly acknowledging the prevalence of institutional issues, you continue to make choices, day after day, that reinforce the status quo. You’ll claim that it’s not up to you, that you’re being fair and unbiased. That it’s just the way things worked out. It’s not bias that led you to repeatedly hire white men over women and people of color. They just had better resumes and interviews. It’s not your fault that it turned out they had no experience.

You’ll encourage diversity trainings because you know it’s a way to provide the appearance of caring, and that they don’t make much difference without cultural change.

At the same time, you’ll ignore that workers of color leave your organization at much higher rates than your white employees. When a woman of color sends you a document for review, you’ll complain about how it’s written, despite the fact that her co-worker, a white man, sent you the same document weeks before and you thought it was wonderful. When a woman comes up with an idea during a meeting, you won’t hear it until a man repeats it. When people of color come to talk to you honestly about their experience, you’ll condescend, and make them leave feeling smaller than before.

You’ll use your position to undermine and dismantle women who are trying to take initiative and improve staff development, while promoting yet another white man who talks well and has more charisma than ability.

You’ll profess to care about everyone in the team, but only take the complaints seriously when they come from a man. You’ll tell them that you wish you had more resources, yet magically find money whenever you need it for a pet project or a pet person. 

You’ll ignore who has power and who doesn’t, because to dismantle racist and sexist practices would be to dismantle your own tools for success.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you genuinely believe in your own myth or if you just believe that the rest of us are too foolish to see your hypocrisy. Maybe it’s both.

You certainly seem to think that your veil is perfect, that we’ll never see through it. 

And the truth is, often, we don’t. Not because of you, not because you’re so smart or so special. You’re not. 

It’s because of us. Because we are people who care. We are people who do the work we do to make a difference in the lives of others. To try and make the world just a little bit more bearable. We walk with hope and genuine empathy, and to you this is a gift that makes us the perfect victims for your abuse.

To our faces, you will be charming and supportive. You will make sure that each little cut is as tiny as possible, so that we can’t see how much we’re bleeding until it’s far too late.

Yet the thing about veils is that they are fragile. They tear easily. There are gaps that the truth is able to slip through. It may take time. We have to overcome our own doubts, our own hopes. We have to learn to trust our gut, to have faith that our inner disquiet is justified when we’re in your presence.

Even once the veil starts to slip, we still wish for the best. We are beings of hope, after all. And our boundless hope includes even you. As the truth becomes clearer, we even gaslight ourselves, because maybe, just maybe, you mean it this time. So when you come in, and tell us you care, that things will change, that you’re working on making it better, we believe. Because we want to. Because we have to. This time, maybe you’ll really listen. This time, maybe you’ll really change.

Despite all that, eventually, we will see you. Completely. For what you truly are.

We see you for the damage you cause. We see you for the way you prise off our sense of self-worth and value, one tiny sliver at a time. We see your lies, and your manipulation, and your complete lack of anything resembling integrity.

We pretend that we don’t, because we want to keep helping those we work with. We pretend, because we have bonded as a team through our trauma with you, and we want to be there for each other. We pretend, because we need a job to survive. But we still see.

It bothers me a lot that you won. That your devaluing of me as an employee, first in subtle, than not so subtle ways, eventually accomplished your goal. That I’m not there to speak up for others because I had to save myself. That all the good I did gets disappeared a little more every day, until there will be nothing left of me there, and it will be like I never made a difference at all. 

It bothers me that you win, every day, in every industry, by being small and petty and mean, beneath your veneer of “caring manager”.

But I regret nothing. Because I learned so much from you. I learned about the kind of person, the kind of leader, that I will never be. You made me feel sad and small, but I’m still here. You hurt me, but you couldn’t stop me from seeing the truth. You didn’t like my anger, so I’m learning to embrace it. You didn’t like my voice, so now I speak up where you can’t stop me. 

I wish I was still the kind of person I was twenty years ago, who would have genuinely believed that you were capable of change. Maybe you still are, I have just never seen it. I’ve stopped believing that we can wait for you to change yourselves. The world just doesn’t have time.

I hope for your sake that someday you do have a moment of clarity. Living your whole life without growth is a desperately sad thing.

For now, your legacy gets to be one of a bad example. And I’ll use it often.

4 thoughts on “For All the Bad Leaders”

  1. Thank you. It is so hard to let go of the vision when you believed you were contributing to something important. My heart aches. I am tired. Thank you for finding the words that eluded me. K.

  2. It is difficult to give up on the idealistic view that people are inherently good and will change once they realize their missteps. It is a harsh reality to see that is not the case.

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