Cringeworthy Leadership

True story: Two people compete for an open supervisor position. A gets it and now supervises B.  Supervisor A immediately makes worker B come in for multiple, successive Saturdays to train A on technical skills that the new boss is lacking.  While at the Saturday trainings, A might say, “sorry I have to take this [personal] call,” and leave B sitting for over an hour until returning from the call.  A never thanks B for giving up six Saturdays.

A and B unsurprisingly begin a downwards escalating two-year relationship, where A continues to assert power and B cooperates with an increasingly passive-aggressive manner.  B’s back goes out (are you surprised that emotional stress helps induce physical pain?). B’s doctor says, “no work for you for 2 weeks.”  B gets a call at home from A who says, “I don’t care if you drive, take a bus, a cab, or a bike, but you need to get to work,” and, later on the call says, “I don’t care what your doctor says.”   We cringe. Really, she said that?  Yes, but unfortunately for A, her call to B had hit B’s old fashioned, home answering machine — the kind with the mini cassette tape — before B could pick up the phone, and the trusty machine continued to record A’s entire CRINGEWORTHY power trip for posterity — oh, yes, and for HR.  A, fortunately, became “not A” at that company. She was fired.

My kids nicknamed me “wild card,” because like lots of dads I blurt cringeworthy things.  An innocent example would be making use of “their” language, for example, I might say, “Dude, that’s really on fleek.”* That might evoke a post-cringe comment like:  “Really, Dad? Give it up.”  Like A in the story above, I may co-opt language or say something that’s just not PC.  I suppose I do, because though my offenses are hopefully less egregious than A’s abusive behavior, my sense of duty/power as a parent can bleed (“do you know who pays for that cell phone, young lady?!”) into a sense of privilege in my home. I make them cringe because I act like I’m exempt from social custom.

I authored a bigger cringe moment at the beach on Lake Michigan last week.  Acting like my teenage days, I barked at my sister, telling her to quit telling me what to do.  She noted my hypocrisy, which generated a bit of a self-cringe moment. The ensuing back-and-forth showed how a cringeworthy moment gets worse.  Our innocent, sunning sister-in-law and smattering of nieces and nephews, felt the emotional heat as unkind things were said and my sister lobbed an F-bomb my way.  Our fight led to their flight, as kids scampered off their blankets and into the water. I too fled the cringeworthy kerfuffle by donning my headphones to listen to my book on Elon Musk, the genius who created SpaceX and Tesla (and whose nerdiness, ambition, and power routinely lead to statements that made classmates, employees, and now readers cringe). My sister, stomped off, fussing at me as I increased the volume in my speakers. Sorry to make you cringe with-at me.

Some comedians, like say, Chris Rock, Louie CK, or Donald Trump) are cringe-creating machines. We feel uncomfortable for them, and for those they demean with their insensitivity. Of course, Donald Trump – like A in my story, and me in my own life, is NOT a comedian.  He like we, have power-over people, and we don’t just generate cringeworthy moments, but enduring anxiety, shame, and hurt. What can we do?

First, become aware of how YOU make your kids, your staff, your siblings cringe?  Do you take responsibility if or when you cross that line?  Second, stand up!  What do you do when an A in your shop (or in line at Starbucks) embarrasses himself with cringeworthy behavior, but doesn’t seem to know or care?  The fact is the B’s of the world seldom have answering machines to support them. If they raise the issue – like a serious one of racial or sexist or other “well-meaning” jokes – who will bear the risk of their coming forth?  They suspect they will, so they just “suck it up.”

You can’t just cringe and slink into the lake when hurtful things are said.  At least not when you

Lead with your best self.

* For the meaning of “on fleek,” see this Bustle article.

  • Great insight AND how did you resolve your less than stellar behavior with your sister-great leadership takes the next step after recognition.

  • Dan, it is hardly a new theme, “who will bear the risk of their coming forth? They suspect they will, so they just “suck it up.” It is an old theme. Uniquely an American experience, as literally the dilemma that triggered our nation’s founding; the answer is so fundamental that it is firmly fixed in our everyday culture, whether on the beach or the shop and it may be argued the basis of our legal system’s moral compass.

    Thomas Jefferson’s theme of July 4, 1776, ran parallel to yours Dan, “experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

    Lead with your best self, why wait, B should not allow A to get away with bad behavior. Point out it is un-American and simply demonstrate Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence provides the solution because time is too precious to waste not making the most the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

  • “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Better to have the full sentence of Thoreau.

  • Dan: Great article, the other view, which you have also covered at different times, is we all fall short sometimes. Someone once said to Ken Blanchard, “I wish I was as good as Ken Blanchard all the time”, and Ken answered, “So do I.”

    The other point, is what do you do when you have “stepped in it” for whatever reason? Is it safe for someone to point it out, or for you to see it yourself and respond with an apology? If the relationship is solid, in an ideal world, it should be.

    How safe it is for someone to bring up one of these items is pretty dependent on what the participants think of each other.

    You make a good point for both sides of the issue.


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