02/10/2015 09:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I'm Sorry I Was A Horrible Manager


Dear people who reported to me when I first started managing,

I'm sorry. I didn't know what I didn't know. I lashed out and yelled. I still feel the shame of that. Why was I so angry? All I remember is feeling afraid. Afraid that I'd get into trouble for something I didn't do. Or something I did do. It happened all the time. I was always on the brink of being in trouble, or actually in trouble, with my boss or his boss. There was so much yelling and finger pointing and covering your ass. I don't remember all the specifics, but I do remember the fear. I remember a constant feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach. Years of fear, and years of me spewing anger and frustration at you as if handing off the fear from my boss to me to you would free me from it. It never worked that way; the fear just expanded to reach all of us.

Thinking about 25 years ago, when I was a new manager, I feel sad. I had the excitement and desire to be a great boss! I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, "You're the boss now!" I was really into the word Boss. I took it as my personal responsibility to never miss a deadline, never go over budget, and never allow an error in the publication we were producing. It didn't occurred to me that these were equally as important as how we treated each other. I learned from my manager and his manager. They were inconsistent, unkind, and manipulative, and thoroughly believed this was how to get the job done. So I followed in their footsteps. They were my only role models and it was apparent that this was the way to get promoted, get more responsibility, and make more money.

My second or third year in management, I bought a subscription to a management weekly. It was a 4-page newsletter and some of the advice was great. Some was whack, but I found it exciting to begin to identify that for myself. It gave me perspective and helped me realize how toxic our office was. It was like ripping out pictures of couches and creating two piles - "I like this couch" or "I definitely never want to live with this couch." The more I made these proverbial piles, the more I saw that what I was doing was in the "definitely don't want to be that manager" category. So I began to make changes.

Dear people who reported to me during this phase,

I apologize for my behavior. I learned how hard it was to be kind in a fear-based trained body. Muscle memory kept snapping me back. I made so many mistakes in this period. You probably thought I was crazy; nice one minute and baring my teeth the next. I felt confused, conflicted and scared. But I also knew there was no other way. I just could not keep going as I was. So I blindly fumbled my way through this phase for years, until I finally understood who I wanted to be in the world, and what kind of manager I wanted to be.

Let me be clear. I was alone in this. I had no mentor, I had a therapist who was as fear-based and manipulative as my bosses were, and my peers were as lost as I was. Along the way I crossed paths with 3 people I felt were good managers. I tried to model myself after them. That was helpful, but what was I going for anyway? I wanted to be kind, but I didn't want to be a pushover. I wanted to help others, but I wanted to make money. I wanted to run a business, but I didn't want to be an asshole. That was my map and I kept on it.

Dear people who feel lost,

I finally figured it out. I can be compassionate and still hold people accountable. It's called Compassionate Management, the very opposite of fear-based management. It's possible to go through this journey and come out on the happier, healthier, more profitable side of it.

Compassion is a popular trend these days. That's nice. But it's much deeper than a trend. It's the smartest, most effective business tool most of us never use because we think of it as hippie mumbo jumbo. It's not, when used the right way. Compassion is a powerful tool that simultaneously offers accountability and a safe space to be real. It is the path of having a warm heart towards people and a cold eye on the bottom line.

You are cordially invited to seek this path. I'm here if you want to talk.

With compassion,