Invaluable Lessons about Leadership That I’ve Learned through Bad Examples


[This is post by Sebastian Roltgen who writes at Lifestyle Like A Boss. Check out his site and connect with him on Twitter. If you would like to guest post on my blog, click here.]

Do you work for a bad leader and plan to leave the sinking ship?

Go for it! But before you leave:

Take a moment and analyze what exactly the guys in charge are messing up.

A bad leader is the best teacher you will ever find. When everything runs smoothly it’s hard to say what makes the difference.

But the bad always stands out. Simply doing the opposite of it will already transform you into a decent leader.

Here are some invaluable lessons that I’ve learned about leadership before I decided to run my own one-man show.

Lesson #1: Your employees need to buy-in

The new top dog of the department was a tough guy. He had tier one consulting experience and was an MD in M&A for almost a decade.

His Mission:

Catch up with the top departments in growth and market share.

They said: “Do whatever it takes.”

What he did:

His new department was like a big family. Some people knew each other for almost two decades.

It was a clash of cultures, a performance-orientated investment banker vs. a stability-orientated corporate banking department.

Since he had no intention to become a family member, he cut all the crap.

He got rid of guys with over two decades experience on their shoulders. He replaced them with young and hungry guys. The change process was brutal.

To achieve his goals he developed a new strategy for the risk-takers:

– An 80/20 portfolio approach
– Identified growth targets
– Pitching only for lead positions and big tickets
– Always going for the status as relationship bank
– Always demanding a fair share of cross sells
– Strong focus on revenue-generating tasks

His strategy was legit and would have worked. But he messed up an important part. He didn’t get the top guys behind the strategy.

They didn’t understand why change is necessary. In their eyes everything was perfect.

The result: They refused to execute the new strategy. Everybody else followed the example.

Many of the good ideas fizzled out.

The Lesson:

If your employees don’t buy-in, none of your shiny PowerPoint slides will become reality.

Having a corporate title doesn’t create loyal followers. Followership is not given. It is earned.

Change will only happen if your employees understand why it is necessary. They need to be involved. They need to carry it. They need to want it.

Implementing this mindset is your job.


– Be honest about the circumstances
– Communicate why change is necessary
– Describe how the situation will look after the job is done
– Describe why the end result will be better than the current situation
– Involve the top guys into the development of the strategy
– Delegate responsibility to the top guys and hold them accountable
– Be a model student of your strategy
– Implement some quick fixes into your strategy to make it tangible

Lesson #2: Your Credibility is as fragile as the New Guy

The new team leader had an outstanding track record, a decade of leadership experience at the largest competitor and a go-getter attitude.

His Mission

Create strong relationships with the top players in the market. Bring in big deals for quick growth.

What he did:

From day 1 the cultural misfit was his biggest problem.

He wanted to do deals that nobody else was even considering. He underestimated the influence of the risk manager. He overestimated the influence of his position.

Within weeks he had lost credibility. “Just let him talk, he has no idea what he’s talking about.”

He adapted with time. He became a good leader. But his initial un-calibrated actions left marks.

There is this saying: “They come because of a company. They leave because of a person.”

It carries substance. Two talents left the company due to his actions.

The Lesson:

As the new guy your credibility is fragile. If you talk or act against the culture and values of the company your employees won’t take you seriously.

Some un-calibrated moves are already enough to destroy your credibility.

– Don’t overestimate your position if you’re the new guy
– Step back for the first weeks and learn about the culture and values
– Get advice from the guys outside of your team to see if your ideas are feasible
– Announce small things, realize them, win credibility, and grow from there

Summary: Working for a bad manager is a tremendous opportunity for you. The bad always stands out. Analyze what the guys in charge are doing wrong and do the opposite once it’s your turn.

Questions: Have you ever had to work under a bad boss or leader? What lessons did you learn?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • “Have you ever had to work under a bad boss or leader? What lessons did you learn?”
    So far, nope. So far the leaders I’ve worked with are either average or great.

    If I were to encounter one, I’ll make sure to learn from them. I’ll probably experience the same thing as you, Sebastian.

    • Wan, that’s the right mindset!

    • That’s great! You can learn a lot from good leaders as well:)

  • Yes, don’t over promise and under deliver. Words and actions need to match. If we do this as leader our character and reputation should match. Our yes needs to be yes and our no needs to be no.

    • Leader Nr.1 was an outstanding smart guy. He taught us younger guys the mindset of “walk the talk”. But he forgot to capture the older guys, that was his mistake.

      • Makes since Sabastian. When turning a ship it must involve everyone and must be done slowly or the ship will crack in half.

  • Great post. You obviously have a ton of experience and it comes through in the post. Although it seems like fundamentals, the truth is many leaders miss the boat on communicating the vision, maybe a carry over from childhood in the way we’re taught “elements” of the then end vision in elementary school.

    I’ve learned from past leaders, risk takers that made it big only to keep risking at the same leveraged rate and eventually losing it all. Also leaders that were afraid of moving people up that were’t “yes” type of people in order to be able to rule with an iron fist and ended up with turnover like pancakes on a breakfast griddle.

    Good thoughts. Thanks.

    • Thanks man!

      How you communicate your vision will either make or break your complete strategy.

      At one of his last speeches leader Nr.1 managed to communicate the vision in a way that people started to buy in. But it was already too late. He got discharged.

  • Dan,

    thanks for having me! You have a great blog here.

    • Glad to feature a post from you:)

  • Alan Allard

    Sebastian, loved the leadership profiles/behavioral descriptions and the insights learned. Leaders seldom fail because they don’t know the technical side of their job. As it’s often stated, I.Q. gets you in the job but it’s emotional and social intellience that is 80% that explains why some succeed or fail once there. As an executive coach, I’ve seen leaders improve in both, but they have to want it. Not every one is coachable.

    • Hello Alan,

      Great points, to lead successfully requires skills and a high I.Q., and emotional intelligence. Thank you for adding to the discussion.

  • You have to lead by example, great guest post!

  • As leaders we can either be an example of who to be or a warning sign of what not to be! I actually blog about this tomorrow morning. I agree with you! I believe we can learn just as much or even more from bad leaders as we can with the good ones.

    • We can learn from either, it’s always nicer to learn from a good leader though. I’m looking forward to reading your post! Thank you for stopping by and sharing.

  • DS

    I learned to check your ideas and build consensus behind closed doors. You’ll gain clarity, and know the answer a lot more quickly. Plus the feedback will help you improve or shelve an idea.

    • Great additional points David! Thank you for reading and sharing.

  • Wow, great points. Your first example resonated with me as I knew one that was exactly like that. he had grand ideas and visions, but he just couldn’t get anyone behind him. Mostly it was due to the fact that everyone hated him. In fact, people would often ask each other if he was out for the day because then they could actually relax for a little bit. Yeah, he was that bad. When the people you’re leading disrespect you so much that they can only feel relaxed when you’re out of the office, you’re doing something really wrong.

    • Yes, it’s all about positive influence. I have a supervisor where I work just like that, everything is more tense when she is around. Thank you for taking the time to read and add to the discussion.

  • Yes, it’s always wise to learn from someone elses mistakes rather than from your own. One of the most important lessons I learned from a bad leader was to be generous. Being stingy with your employees is a very sure and quick way to lose your favor with them and kill their desire to work.

    • I totally agree Caleb! We can learn a lot by observing those around us. Thank you for adding to the discussion.

  • “A bad leader is the best teacher you will ever find.” I agree 100%. We can even apply this to daily life. Any bad experiences we may have – are good. They teach us, and give us experience.

    As the new guy: I normally stay quiet, don’t say much except a few jokes around, try to be helpful and ask them questions about themselves (maybe I learn something, and EVERYBODY loves talking about themselves). I try to help to make the jobs of others easier and to learn more for myself. It’s a win-win. And with time, casual conversation we get to know each other and just have a great relationship. I like the idea behind – Kill them with kindness.

    • Hello Dragos,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this guest post. Your doing it right, great attitude and behavior. Love this statement you made: “Kill them with kindness.” That’s a powerful principle we all should apply into our leadership. Thank you for taking the time to add to the discussion.