The truth is, I know a real-life executive who has won many awards as a “Leading Woman” in her field. I will call her Miranda. She has been featured in the business press and gathered up a victory lap of accolades as she prepares to retire this year. Judging by the hardware and press clippings, you would think Miranda was an icon of all that is right with leaders in corporate life, a role model for aspiring leaders everywhere, but especially women leaders looking for a role model of mother, businesswoman, success. But the trust is, people have been hoping and praying for her retirement for a generation. Miranda is a bully, plain and simple. Her career is based off her ability to kick down all the while kissing up.
Most kids experience bullying. I always think of the scene from The Christmas Story where the boys are terrorized by the back-alley brute who wants their lunch money. Those bullies go from school yard to board room with ease. They adroitly learn how to navigate the corporate hierarchy and its tendency to emphasize extraversion and charisma above competence and depth of thought. They are “strong” and “tough.” But like the bully in The Christmas Story and most bullies, they are quite weak and insecure under the facade.
Miranda was willing to do whatever it took to make it in “a man’s world”: smoke cigars at company dinners. Sip double malt scotch. Have a giant porterhouse alongside the guys. Going to the baseball game, bring Miranda – she loves sports. She declared to the CEO “Don’t even think of me as a woman! I’m just one of the guys!” while confiding to me that she wore shorter shirts and higher heels to her performance review and other executive meetings to emphasize her status as one of the top females in the company. Working both sides of the coin was her gift.
So, while she was enjoying the private jet with the boys, Miranda had a staff of minions at her beck and call. Those of us who knew her well laugh that Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” was based on Miranda. Nothing was ever good enough for her, the good ideas were always hers even if you had presented it, and god forbid there be a huge mistake made under her watch – it was YOUR fault, never hers. She intentionally stoked adversarial rivalries with made-up stories confided to each of the parties involved so each one thought less of the other side because of the rumor Miranda had spread. Nefariously, only she could broker the peace for the wars she had started between two executives. It was evil genius that got paid a handsome sum to stir up more trouble than she solved.
One afternoon the building where Miranda’s call center shared space with the IT department had a fire alarm go off. While the alarm blared, Miranda blocked to door and told the call center reps they were to remain on the phone despite the fire trucks and alarm both blaring. The CIO stepped in and said, “We need to evacuate this building!” The Fire Chief stepped in and said the same. Still, Miranda blocked the door from her reps leaving. The building was searched, and the fire department dealt with the problem for about 30 minutes while the scared and shaken crew remained feebly taking customer calls with the blare of the alarm screeching in the background.
The company was fined more than six figures for not evacuating its employees that day. It was on the news. Those who witnessed Miranda’s behavior never forgot how heartless and uncaring she was about keeping her people in harm’s way of a serious threat, ignoring first responders to do it. Miranda’s boss? He rewarded her for making sure the phones remained staff despite the emergency. Kissing up. Kicking down.
I came to see Miranda with empathy on my good days and disgust on my bad days. She had a hateful mother/loving father story that made you realize she had her own personal issues. I worked to neutralize her malicious behavior where I could and protect people where I couldn’t. I took risks to expose her and paid a price for some of those risks. The kissing up had won her the support of key leaders who only saw the manic life of the party and never saw the legions of bullied and broken people she left in her wake. Or maybe they saw them and didn’t care.
How much more effective could our organization have been if it hadn’t had to spend so much time playing defense to Miranda’s time-wasting ego trips to keep those who would uncover her mediocre intellect and meager skillset at bay? Could that company still be in existence today? Could people have grown as leaders, instead of being blamed for mistakes they hadn’t caused on Miranda’s team and dismissed? I know that that company, once lauded in books and business case studies as a paradigm shifting legend, no longer exists. And I think the tolerance and even encouragement of bully behavior played a huge role in its demise.
So as Miranda gathers up her awards and shuffles off into retirement, let’s ask: is the ROI on bullies’ worth it? Do we have a perverse pleasure in having a corporate bully on our team – somebody to play the bad guy so we don’t have to? Or do we mistakenly believe the ends justify the means because “they get things done,” when in fact so much more could get done if we didn’t waste time dealing with the bully behavior instead of just getting the job done?
Bullies – we’re all grown up now and we don’t have to take your crap anymore. And that’s the truth.
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