Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst

no title has been provided for this book
Publisher: Business Plus
Published: 3/15/2012
Now with a new chapter that focuses on what great bosses really do. Dr. Sutton reveals new insights that he's learned since the writing of Good Boss, Bad Boss. Sutton adds revelatory thoughts about such legendary bosses as Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, A.G. Lafley, and many more, and how you can implement their techniques.

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst by Robert I. Sutton

Learning from your own mistakes is important, but learning from the mistakes of others is just as important. Just ask the COO of an unnamed firm who loudly announced on the subway a list of attorneys who he was going to fire. Unbeknownst to him, a passenger heard him and wrote a blog post naming all of the attorneys he had loudly fired off. Bet he wishes he had been warned! While his mistakes cost him his job, they can prevent you from losing yours.

Good Boss Bad Boss talks about how to learn from the mistakes and successes of other bosses in order to improve your own performance. Because let's face it: sometimes being the best boss means you need to learn from the worst.

Being rude comes with a price tag

In a business meeting, the CEO was being loud and rude, talking over everyone and refusing to engage any dissenting opinions. Everyone in the room was glad to say negative things about him behind his back and complained about his poor leadership abilities. However, once the CEO left the room, the next most powerful person, the CFO, began acting in exactly the same way. What gives?! Upper management sets the tone for lower management, and the way the CEO acts has a trickle-down effect. The solution? Engage in a constructive conflict strategy. That means allowing conflicts to arise, while also not putting yourself above any of your employees. This style has many benefits. Research shows that CEOs who engage in constructive conflict make better decisions because they are open to the opinions and ideas of others. You’ll also prevent that nasty trickle-down effect and improve the tactics of those who work below you. If you chose a constructive conflict-oriented management strategy, you’re in good company. Abraham Lincoln was also a fan of this: he had his top three opponents and critics in his cabinet after winning the election.

Don't crush the bird

Imagine holding a bird in the palm of your hand. If you hold it too tightly, the bird is crushed. If you hold it too loosely, the bird escapes. This is exactly how you should manage: strike a balance between being aloof and micromanaging, two methods which can lead to problematic outcomes. If you’re too assertive, you will damage relationships. If you are not assertive enough, people will not be pressed to follow through on goals. Moderately assertive bosses were rated most effective by MBA students.

Micromanagers often believe they are creating more successful outcomes, but research shows they don’t. Think of it like being a doctor at the birth of a baby: your job is not to be a parent, your job is simply to be present and correct an issue if it comes up.

Grit gets you there

Grit, a term coined by Angela Duckworth, is “perseverance and passion towards long term goals” that does not subside, regardless of failure or adversity. Great bosses inspire their employees to be gritty: to refuse to give up in spite of challenges. Gritty bosses are driven by the possibility that they and their employees can be better. Pixar’s Brad Bird was a gritty boss. He describes himself as never being satisfied, with a “relentless restlessness”. While he was working at Pixar, a new boss took over who said, “I am satisfied with what I do”, and Bird couldn’t relate. He rocked the boat until he was eventually fired. His relentlessness paid off: he got to work on shows like The Simpsons. Expecting the best and refusing to quit, even in the face of adversity, can lead to spectacular things.

Small wins are the path

The small wins strategy is breaking down large tasks into smaller, more accomplishable parts. People freeze up when faced with a massive task. Making it smaller can help. The best bosses break complicated tasks down and talk to employees about them as though they are small and manageable. If you present tasks as though they are doable, people will believe you.

Beware the toxic tandem

Bosses are watched extremely closely by their employees. Linda Hudson, the first female president of General Dynamics learned this when she tied her scarf a new way one day at work. The next day all of her female employees were doing the same. That kind of power can really mess with someone’s head. Research shows that as soon as someone becomes powerful, they tend to become more focused on their own needs and wants, become less focused on others, act as if rules apply to their followers but not to them.

What’s the solution?

Watch yourself! “Watch the way you smile, your tone of voice, the way you greet people…” the list goes on. Get the point?

Make sure employees know you’ve got their backs

Donovan Campbell leads his marine platoon during one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war. His leadership was put to the test when his platoon was ordered to take an officer to examine a school. He resisted because he knew it was a dangerous area and he wanted to protect his soldiers. He fought and was overruled. He insisted that they spend no more than ten minutes in the school. Though the officer agreed initially, it took roughly 15 minutes to walk out. When he did, he was with some school children. Grenades started landing and it turned into an attack that caused a soldier’s death. In spite of the attack, his men remained loyal, because they knew he had their backs. You might not be leading soldiers through war-torn Iraq, but the lesson is an important one. Be loyal to your employees, and fight to protect them. Your loyalty will often be returned.

Fake it until you make it

Leaders get far more blame and credit for the things they do than they actually deserve. Though leaders usually account for about 15% of the output, they are given 50% of the blame and credit. The best bosses know what they do is magnified, and use this to their advantage. They create the illusion of control, thereby increasing their actual control. Andy Grove, Intel’s extremely successful CEO, when asked about how he was so successful, talked about essentially “faking it until you make it”. As a boss, he had to make decisions when the picture wasn’t clear, so he improvised and hoped for the best. He said:

“You have to keep your own spirits up even though you have no idea what you’re doing”.

Remember, beliefs follow behavior: if you act more confident and you will become more confident. Oh, and keep in mind that as a director, you have three options when someone asks you for a decision: yes, no, or I don’t know. Use them. Don’t dither. Having an immediate solution increases the illusion of control, thereby increasing your confidence. And remember, you can always change your mind later.

Give Your Workers Credit, and Take the Blame

Give your followers more credit than they deserve, and make sure to take up some for yourself. People who work for you will want to believe you are talented. Remember no matter how much credit you deserve, you will be getting the most since you are in charge. Also, be willing to take the blame when things go wrong.

When McCain’s Company Maple Leaf Foods caused a bacterial outbreak which leads to 20 deaths and hundreds of illnesses, McCain blamed himself and his company to the press. This was a big deal, especially since the government played a significant role in what happened. By taking responsibility, he showed people he was responsible for the mistake, and by doing that, he shows he also has the capacity to solve the problem. Not only does taking responsibility show you are in control, it also shows your lesson has been learned, which will make others more willing to trust that you will change. Refusing to accept blame usually backfires in the long run. Take control over what you can, show you’ve learned from failures, and move forward.

Oh, and when the moment comes, give an effective apology by refusing to sugar coat. Take the blame fully, apologize fully, take immediate control where you can, explain what you have learned, communicate what you would have done differently, and take credit when improvements happen.

Create an environment where everyone can contribute

Ever wonder about how the funny articles on get created? The CEO At The Onion has meetings where hundreds of possible ideas get thrown around... and most of them are rejected. The CEO makes everyone feel comfortable enough to share and reject ideas, even his own. This creates a safe environment where ideas can be shared and edited, with the best content prevailing. If people feel inhibited, their productivity (especially in creative fields) will grind to a halt.

When it comes to sharing ideas with employees, push your own ideas but listen to the ideas of others, and acknowledge where your ideas may be flawed or faulty. If it comes to a fight about ideas, fight well. Fighting well is so important that Intel used to require classes on it for employees. Creating psychological safety when allowing groups to clash is important. Some excellent things, like The Incredibles, were able to be made because of skilled designers mixed with malcontents, who pushed what was possible in film making through arguing and being challenged.

Also, be willing to gracefully accept defeat when your idea sucks. Oh, and as far as leading successful projects, don’t get too many people involved when you’re starting a project. Don’t forget that just because someone can do something well doesn’t mean they can manage. Finally, don’t involve employees in projects where their opinions ultimately won’t matter. They’ll figure it out, and they will be extremely angry.

Be Comfortable with your Vulnerabilities

Everyone has an Achilles heel, it is essential that you understand your own and have the humility and vulnerability to take steps to address it. When the author’s father had a heart attack, he took a course on reducing type A behavior, thereby reducing his stress, and decreasing the likelihood of another attack. It can also be helpful to get others involved in addressing your behavior if you cannot regulate it on your own.

As far as humility and vulnerability do, there are a lot of situations where humbling yourself is essential if you want to move forward. For instance, if you find yourself confused about some aspect of what your company does, don't be too proud to enlist followers as teachers. And be willing to make mistakes. Finally, workers are happy when they know their bosses care about them. Show you care through gestures of gratitude. Thank people and appreciate them for the things they do.

Stay away from hiring assholes

Interdependence is a natural part of the workplace, and one asshole can corrode a bunch of workers. People who can’t or won’t play well with others drag down performance. Even if an employee is talented, if they put their needs ahead of the company or other employees, the impact can be corrosive. At Men’s Warehouse, when they fired their top salesman because he stole money and treated the other salesmen like garbage, the overall sales rose 30%. It can be challenging to make sure the successful team members get attention while still keeping things even. Do this by:


  1. Selecting and promoting people who have a track record of cooperative and selfless behavior
  2. Rewarding people who perform highly and help others


Also look out for the energizers. They may be quiet: but their effect is significant. These are the people who lift others up and inspire them.

Remember too, bad people are stronger than good. So intervene quickly if one of your workers seems like a problem. If persistent and pointed feedback fails, get rid of that rotten apple!


Often bosses and their people know what needs to be done - and will talk about it, and never actually get anything done. A restaurant chain paid consulting people several million dollars to come up with a plan for improving their chain and discovered the plan was identical to another one a decade earlier. The changes had just never been implemented. This is referred to as the “knowing-doing gap”. Avoid this by establishing a pecking order where those who know the most about the problem can do the most about the problem. Good bosses know sometimes those who know the most aren’t the pushiest. Understand the work that you are doing in a meaningful way.

Protect your workers

The best bosses let their workers do their work. You should be a defender and warrior on your worker’s behalf. Don’t waste people’s time behind late or early to meetings. Try to end early if you can. Don’t use meetings as an opportunity for a “power grab”. John Hennesey, Dean of the Engineering School at Stanford, was always on time to meetings, used the “yes, no, or I don’t know” method and ended every meeting he attended early. He was eventually promoted from Dean to President.

Don’t forget: It's all about you

If you are a boss, your success depends upon how you work with other people. Developing and sustaining self-awareness is essential to this end. The first step to self-awareness as a boss is accepting that you’re probably an asshole, and working from there. The upshot is this: being a good boss is all about you. Become self-obsessed to the point of knowing how to control and monitor your moods. Think about and understand what other people think about you, and how that needs to be adjusted. Ask yourself, “Are you in tune with how it feels to work with you?”

Lots of lessons have to come the hard way, but these are spelled out for you in black and white. Heed these warnings, take these suggestions, and you can be the best boss ever!


Good Boss Bad Boss talks about how to learn from the mistakes and successes of other bosses in order to improve your own performance. Because let's face it: sometimes being the best boss means you need to learn from the worst. Learn why being rude in staff meetings comes with a price tag, what crushing birds have to do with good management, how to get rid of “bad apples” and more to aid you on your journey towards becoming the best boss ever!


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