Friday, February 12, 2016
When I was in my twenties, I had a boss/leader who made my life – and many others lives – hell. For reasons of confidentiality and professionalism I wouldn't name the person obviously, but this is not the first time I've written about my experiences working for a Christian charity-cum-cult that did a fair amount of emotional damage to myself and many others.
For a couple of years I worked for a boss who, on the surface, appeared to be very wise and insightful. She had the ability to captivate you as she told stories, relating personal anecdotes and inspirational nuggets of wisdom. Her understanding of her work was pretty thorough and the way she handled herself in difficult and challenging situations was remarkable. Not only that, but she was tenacious and hard-working, always having numerous projects on the go (often working up until the small hours of morning to get stuff done).
The problem was, she was a terrible leader. She could give out orders easily enough, she could strategise and she could work out problems – but there was a dark side to her that tainted her brilliance. She had a way with people that meant they couldn't help but open up and confide in them, allowing her to offer her thoughtful advise and encouragement. She then used that ability to gain people's trust and manipulate them for her own, it seems, twisted enjoyment. Often irritable and cross (especially when she was tired), she would take it out on people with varying degrees of rage, whether or not they had made mistakes. This is the kind of boss who would do the 'hot and cold' treatment with staff: one minute she was friendly, kind and supportive – the next she was berating you for a minor issue in front of everyone.
Her control-freakishness hung over everything we did like a black cloud and woe betide anyone that didn't do things 'her way' (even though, often, 'her way' was hugely ambiguous and required a significant amount of telepathy to identify correctly). Gossip was routinely employed to sow seeds of doubt and mistrust while – officially at least – talking about other people behind their backs was considered wrong.
Staff appraisals were a time for putting us on trial for all the things we did wrong in the course of our work. To be fair, it wasn't like this every time, but if you were in the middle of a 'cold' phase, you would experience the full force of her wrath.
Whilst her behaviour towards others was bad enough, the fact that she wielded her diabolical talents all while holding the position of a 'spiritual leader' is deeply menacing. At one point she was in charge of our work (as our boss), our home (as our landlord) and our faith - a dangerous amount of power for such an individual. It's a lot easier to quit a job because your senior is a total headcase if the company you work for makes widgets, but when your vocation (or 'calling') is rooted in an earnestly-held spirituality and religion it's extremely difficult to walk away from a faith-based outfit. This is especially so when anyone who 'abandons' the cause is branded traitorous, selfish and not a 'true believer'.
My worst experience – which is still horribly vivid even to this day almost two decades later – involved being used as a scapegoat for a string of project catastrophes that were (after I'd analysed it afterwards) clearly down to poor management. A lack of training, supervision and planning had left me floundering in all sorts of ways and nobody noticed, they just left me to cause disaster after disaster. I know that I have to take responsibility for my actions, but it was never my intention to screw things up – there was no deliberate attempt to do wrong. I just didn't have the support that I needed and my superiors should have identified that.
I don't think she was really ever an evil, malicious person per se, having been responsible for some incredibly kind and selfless things which were sometimes at great cost to herself personally. I think the problem lay in the fact she was just so committed to her 'cause' that she seemed to forget human beings (with thoughts, feelings and free will) were involved.
Thinking back, there are numerous times when I wish I'd retaliated against all this kooky crap that was going on. When berating me in front of others I should have just lost it so she could see how it felt. When giving patronising criticism instead of encouraging feedback, I should have called her out for being unprofessional. But I didn't, because I didn't know any better and I didn't have a rebellious bone in my body.
Interestingly, if I had rejected things earlier, my life would have probably turned out very differently. There's a chance that me and wifey would never gotten married – so, I have at least something to be thankful for. And it has made me much more wary of control-freak types ... well, kind of. I actually found myself subsequently involved with two other individuals who possessed similar personalities later on in my life, and it took me a while to recognise that it was history repeating itself all over again.
Wifey and I eventually saw the light and withdrew from everything, basically going cold turkey from a cult which took years to move on from emotionally. We weren't the first to leave, but I think we were part of a 'mass exodus' of close allies who'd decided enough was enough. My hope was that this would jolt her into doing some introspection and self-analysis, leading her to realise the error of her ways and endeavour to change.
I've heard on the grapevine that she hasn't changed, however, and that's quite sad. I don't bear any ill-will towards this person, and I have consciously made the decision to forgive but I worry about the string of individuals who have come (or will come) across her path only to walk away damaged and hurt.
It bothers me that someone can have so little self-awareness or desire to improve and that they carry on the same as they always have. Isn't the whole point of leadership, after all, about continuous improvement and self-development?
I guess that's the thing about a horrible boss – they won't or can't change and will always be, well, horrible.