Articles > The dark side of the brilliant boss

The dark side of the brilliant boss
Globe & Mail, October 13, 2010

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

One of my clients has spent the better part of the past year being depressed about her boss's expectations. No matter how hard she tries to please him, he laces into her in humiliating ways, and the workload is "over the top," she says. She can't sleep at night and is considering taking a stress leave.

Yet when I suggest that she should consider quitting, her instant reply is that while her boss may be demanding, he's brilliant.

I have seen many people fall prey to a charismatic boss. While under their thrall, employees explain away their leader's bad behaviour - no matter how egregious - by invoking how brilliant or visionary he or she is. If the employees cannot meet an assignment or are criticized, they blame themselves and their lack of competence rather than the boss's expectations.

They believe, with almost a religious fervour, that what the boss is doing is important, and that they need to be a part of it, regardless of the emotional fallout.

The victims of these visionary leaders are well-respected and accomplished professionals with insight into the effect of their boss's behaviour on their emotional equilibrium. But they are so spellbound that they lose personal boundaries and perspective.

A friend who worked for such a boss described this process aptly: "The boss thinks he's God, and you start to think he is as well." She said that, at first, she knew her manager's demands were unreasonable and didn't even make good business sense. But gradually, 'his reality became my reality and I was prepared to do whatever he thought necessary. In the end, you completely abandon yourself and your own ideas. Your sense of self is swallowed by your boss's whims.'

Another woman who works in what she describes as a 'cult-like regime,' says, that "whenever there is a decision to be made, everyone runs around asking 'What does the boss want?' They never think: 'What is the best thing to do?'" The result is that the work suffers as it is driven by the leader's ego, and not the organization's needs.

People who work for these types of leaders often can't help but be seduced by the magnetism; they can endure a diet of almost constant criticism, because when the boss throws them a crumb - a minor compliment, a momentary positive gaze - they feel like a million dollars. Why? Because it isn't just anyone complimenting them - it's someone they believe is brilliant, doing exciting visionary work of which they are part. Employees will kill themselves to get that pat on the back. This is why these bosses have such a hold on their staffers and why, like my client, they are prepared to take a lot of punishment rather than quit.

These types of leaders are also skilled manipulators. They play favourites. As long as you are a pet in the inner circle, with the light shining on you, you will be on an emotional high, addicted to your job. Goodies such as plum assignments will be thrown your way. But make one misstep and you will no longer enjoy exalted status, and your self-esteem will crash. (Non-pets always feel worthless.)

Of course, leaders are supposed to set the visionary goals for a company or department; their staff is supposed to help implement them. Good leaders get input from others, have a vision that allows for detours, and understands that there may be several ways of thinking about an issue. But charismatic leaders rarely suffer from self-doubt; their modus operandi is "my way or the highway." This is one reason staffers are loath to challenge or question them.

If your boss thinks he has a monopoly on the truth, how do you influence him? It's not easy. You must be able to have faith in, and maintain, your own counsel so you can keep from being "infected" by the boss's charisma, not only in terms of what work gets done and how, but also how you feel about yourself. This is a particular challenge if his comments about your work leave you confused or depressed.

The key is to take back the power to shape your emotions. I once had a supervisor whose comments about my work left me constantly anxious. It took several months but I eventually threw off the psychological hold he had on me, and left the job.

I don't think any job is worth the price of repeated blows to self-esteem. But if, for whatever reason, you can't leave your job, or are prepared to hold your nose rather than quit, it is crucial that you gain perspective on your boss's behaviour, and your own skills and talents.

Re-establish your boundaries. Remind yourself what you are capable of doing. Don't allow anyone to define who you are and what you bring to the table.

If you can't do that, the alternative may not be pretty - and you'll have to get used to sleepless nights.


Charismatic leaders possess a range of attributes, both good and bad:

Positive traits ...

Extremely charming and highly skilled in interpersonal relations. When they talk to you, they can make you feel you are the most important person in the world.

Intense, energizing, and uplifting.

Awe-inspiring, motivating others to go the limit.

Powerful and persuasive, both in terms of drawing you into their vision, and in making you want their approval.

... and negative

Can be fickle in their affections and attentions.

Capable of being mean and cruel; their feedback can be crushing.

Narcissistic and self-serving in pursuit of a vision that supports their ego needs, as opposed to the needs of the organization.

Messianic and unwavering in their ideas.

Exacting task master ("slave driver").

Can be cold and harsh in interactions with those who aren't part of the inner circle.

Tips on handling a charismatic boss

Be your own person.
Don't allow your boss to determine your self-worth.

Maintain your own counsel. Don't be sucked into the boss's vision simply because of his charismatic personality. Think about what the vision means for the company.

Throw off the shackles. Look critically at your supervisor; break your addiction to the need for his approval.

Consult co-workers. If you are experiencing difficulties, chances are they are too; some of them may have helpful tips for dealing with the boss. But be careful who you confide in.

Think before you leap. If you simply can't deal with the boss's behaviour, decide whether leaving the job is in your best interest. You may need a counsellor to help you do this.