Karin’s Leadership Articles

overcoming an imperfect boss

Overcoming An Imperfect Boss

by | Mar 27, 2014 | Authenticity & Transparency, By Karin Hurt, Career & Learning, Communication

My first book, Overcoming An Imperfect Boss is now on Amazon. I want to express deep gratitude to all in the LGL community who have grown with me in my Imperfections. Your insights are woven throughout this guide.

Why Talk About The Imperfect Boss?

I keep being asked why, of all the leadership topics I write and speak about, I would pick “imperfect bosses” as the topic of my first book. It’s quite simple. The supervisor relationship is the number one predictor of employee engagement and job satisfaction. Yet, most people screw up this powerful association.

The tragedy is that too many people leave the magic of what could be a game-changing relationship untapped. They follow traditional boss-subordinate protocol…they don’t get too close, don’t say too much, and don’t push the envelope. And so bosses come and go, and both parties muddle through. People do their best with the boss they’ve been given. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Some of the bosses who once made me crazy, grew to be lifelong mentors and friends. As I reflect on our journeys, each of these alliances had a transformation point. Something drove one or the other of us crazy, we talked about it, worked through it, and both emerged with a deeper level of respect.

Imperfect Bosses I’ve Known

There was the VP that blew a gasket because of a stupid (yet fixable) mistake one of my employees had made. He screamed and yelled at me just minutes before I had to grab a microphone and give a motivational speech to my entire organization.Overcoming an Imperfect Boss

I had choices. I could have become rattled and let his poor leadership choice screw up my ability to lead. Instead, I looked him in the eye and calmly shared, “I can see you’re really upset, and I’m sorry. We need to talk through what happened here and address it. But right now, I have hundreds of people waiting for inspiration. So please excuse me.” I turned around and left my office, not sure if I would have a job when I returned.

I gave my speech, fixed the mistake, and his entire demeanor changed. We never did discuss that outburst or what had triggered it. We didn’t need to. This “screamer” never raised his voice to me again, and became one of the best bosses and mentors I’ve ever had.

There was also the time I was running a large sales organization. I knew we needed to change the org structure and invest in additional headcount. I had a tight business case, and had proved-out the trial concept, but my boss was worried about the political ramifications of doing something different than the other Regions.

I told him, “I’m so confident that this will work that if it doesn’t you can fire me.” Of course that was highly risky, and I had to be prepared to walk away. But the depth of my passion and commitment, led him to “yes”.

We blew away the results, and became the best sales team in the Nation in that arena. Others regions followed our model.

The Imperfect Boss I’ve Been

Of course, sometimes I’m the imperfect one in need of reigning in. Not long ago, I was going through a really tough couple of weeks. The cocktail of challenges was impacting our performance. We needed stronger results immediately. I didn’t realize how much my stress showed on the outside. A trusted leader on my team shared bluntly, “You’re changing.”

The words stung with fierce truth. He was right. Succumbing to the leadership squash sandwich, I was taking on familiar, but unwelcome behaviors common in such scenes. I was showing up like the boss I refused to become.

I was worried about our mission, our cause, and our careers. My passion to protect my team had taken on an ironic intensity. My supportive style had morphed into frantic control. I began inviting myself to calls and requiring more rehearsals and executive readouts. Instead of trusting my competent team, I scrutinized each page of every Powerpoint deck.

My efforts to protect them from my stress had backfired. I had stopped leading like me. The words still echoing from the first conversation, my phone rang again. I now knew my team was tag-teaming this intervention.

“I joined this organization because I believe in your leadership. Your rare style works. Stay the course. We believe in you, in us, and the mission. Every one of us has your back. Just tell us what you need.”

There I was, a leader following the intervention of my team. They were coaching me back toward authenticity and it was wonderful.

My team reminded me that:

  • Showing up tough is weak
  • Servant leaders must also receive
  • Great teams hold their leader accountable
  • I want to know the truth
  • Great leaders tell the truth
  • Courage means staying true to your style
  • My team needs me to lead like me

Over the years, I’ve had employees tell me how I’ve hurt their feelings, overlooked their efforts, embarrassed them, or over-reacted. Every one of those conversations has made us stronger, tighter, and more effective.

The most brave of these folks, the men and women that have given me the most stinging (and true) criticism, have grown into the richest relationships.

The Imperfect Boss You’ve Had: Your Turn…

So in the spirit of celebration and community, please share your stories of overcoming. Do what you will to make it comfortable. Disguise the name, make it a story from long, long ago, change the gender, but do share.

Let’s have a celebration of journeys, growth, and imperfection. If you find the book helpful, I’d appreciate your reviews on Amazon to help spread the word.

Are you looking to be a better boss? Check out our book Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results- Without Losing Your Soul

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Alli Polin

    Huge congratulations, Karin!!

    I’ve worked for imperfect bosses and I’m most definitely far from perfect as well. Truly, we’re all human and some days will not be days that make us proud or we wish we had as a part of our legacy but once the words are out, we can’t take them back.

    I can’t wait to read it!

    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks so much. Every boss is imperfect in their own way, that’s our collective leadership challenge. I’m looking forward to our writing collaboration.

  2. Mauro Turrisi

    Karin. What a wonderful topic. I have often found myself to involved in work where my employees are more than confident and not giving other the opportunity to shine. Most recently I have had some wonderful leaders but I often find myself comparing them instead of embracing their strengths. I need to constantly remind myself that all are my teachers.
    Congratulations on your first book.
    I cant wait to read it and look forward to future topics.

    • Karin Hurt

      Mauro, Thanks so much. You raise a really important point. There is something we can learn from every every leader we work with, from both their strengths and imperfections. Comparisons and wishing they were like someone else is just not that useful. Thanks for putting up with my imperfections.

  3. Jon Mertz

    Congratulations on the launch of your book, Karin! Good or imperfect, learning from our bosses is so essential. I have learned a great deal from each person I have worked for — things I would not do and things I do today. This is a great topic and am sure your book will be read by many and serve as a point to learn and grow further as leaders! Congrats! Jon

    • Karin Hurt

      Thank you! Writing it has been such a fun process. I too have learned so much from my many bosses (and team members) over the years as well. It’s so important to keep learning. Leadership is never handled

  4. Terri Klass

    I have worked for imperfect and insane bosses as well as caring and nurturing ones too. I once had a boss who questioned everything I did to the point of me getting angry before any interaction with him. Did I learn some leadership lessons from him? Absolutely. I did learn that being an empowering leader is way better than a control freak.

    Congratulations on the book, Karin! Looking forward to reading it!

    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks so much. I’ve also formed a lot of my leadership philosophy based on how I’ve felt in when in the position of followers. There’s something to be said in working to become the boss we wish we had.

  5. Rick Foreman

    Great reflection. I’ve always been a fan of the “Walk the Talk” series, which causes one to think about walking in the other’s shoes for a while. Our behavior contributes towards our character based upon the choices we make. My imperfection and the imperfection of past bosses creates an opportunity for developing the characteristics of a servant leader. Not always comfortable or fun but as I’ve made the decision to do the right thing, good things happen. As a coach and mentor, I’m consistently focused on helping myself and others improve what we control. Along the way, that opportunity to influence bad bosses or others towards the good remains an exciting challenge.

    • Karin Hurt

      Rick, So great to have you join the conversation. Your point is exactly the main focus on this book. Understanding how to influence the relationship and teak more control over your own career.

  6. Joy Guthrie

    Congratulations on your book launch, Karin! It’s a wonderful topic. Looking forward to reading.

    • Karin Hurt

      Joy, Thanks so much. Always appreciate your support.

  7. Emily Snook

    My imperfect boss was unrecognizable as such when I first encountered him. I was young and talented; he gave me a fantastic upward mobility opportunity; I thought he was my mentor. Over time I began to see that he was leaning on me; riding my coattails; using me and my loyalty to him. I had seen him mistreat people close to me, but was somehow blinded. When I came to, I was – confused; I felt guilty; i was angry; I felt stupid.
    After a few years – of working in separate universes – I came to a point of internal forgiveness, thankfulness, and peace.
    I reached out to him and briefly told him what he had meant to me, what his opportunity had afforded me, and that I was thankful.

    And left it at that.

    • Karin Hurt

      Emily, Thanks for sharing your powerful story and the choices you made. Awesome to have you join the conversation.

  8. bill holston

    Just bought it, I’ll read and pass on to my direct reports, cause they sure have an imperfect boss. A question, I don’t really like the term boss, although my staff uses it. Did you debate using that term i the title.

    I’d like to encourage our community to buy this book, and write some reviews.

  9. letsgrowleaders

    Bill, thank you and thanks for bringing that up. As you’ll see in the foreword from Dr Henry Sims, author of Business Without Bosses, there are likely very few people who disdain the “b word” more than me.

    I use the word deliberately to be provocative. Thinking of your boss in such power terms puts the relationship at a disadvantage from the very start.

    Much better to think of your “boss” as a “messy human being doing the best she can… Just like you “

  10. Jesse Lyn Stoner

    Congrat, Karin! Your new book is excellent. I just ordered a copy for my niece who is struggling with her boss and I’m looking forward to sharing it with others.

    • Karin Hurt

      Jesse, Thanks so much. I so appreciate all of your support, and for your powerful endorsement.

  11. Rebecca@TakeThisJobOrShoveIt.com

    Bad bosses really do exist and they can make your work and working environment stressful. To handle such situation remember this 3 words: patience, focus and respect. Try not to get distracted by your devilish boss and instead focus on your work. Try to make your thread of patience a little bit longer and of course he is your boss so still show some respect.

  12. Dawn

    If your book covers how to handle a boss who is a secretive, micro-managing bully who excludes people from contributing any input to decision making, I need to order a copy pronto! My team is dealing with someone who changes processes for work he has never done without input from experienced people who do the work. No one knows what to expect from this person or what kind of dumb change is coming down the pike, except that we can rest assured he will be angry if anyone suggests alternative actions. The team is forced to use an expensive system that makes the work more difficult so this person can count every email & phone call & put time stamps on them. Never mind that every email require different levels of action & the time stamps are useless because follow up activity required cannot be completed while the email is open. Now that the company spent the money on a work flow system that is not well suited to the type of work our team does (as management was advised before spending the money), management will not admit that the work-arounds required are crazy & inefficient. Good people have quit because there seems to be no hope of improvement. This boss is a “project manager” who does not share any kind of vision for the organization with the team & does not want to hear any criticisms. Numbers are absolute to this boss & people are just supposed to do what he says without asking questions or contributing ideas for a better work flow. Is there any hope or should I simply find another job after more than a decade with this company?


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