Last week, I went to dinner with a beloved client of mine. Right out of college, he had gone into business on his own and became very successful very quickly. I asked him how he learned to be a good boss, when he had never had a boss.
He replied that he had done it the wrong way. He only learned by trying and failing, and by watching others. Eventually, he learned that he was better off not being a boss at all.
But he told me about a client of his who started with a very long range plan. He worked at a big company for ten years and learned all about how it worked. Then he worked for a medium-sized company, and then he worked for a start-up. After 25 years, he felt ready to start on his own. Three years later, he sold his company for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Then he asked about me.
I told him I had been blessed with working for two of the best bosses in the world, and one of the worst. The two best were Jim Asher, then of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Jonathan Sherman, head of the D.C. office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Both of them came to work every morning passionate about the idea that ideas alone could change the world. "One person, with the right facts and the right arguments can stand before a judge and take on the most powerful people in the world and beat them," Sherman would say. Their love for the work, and the chance to change the world, would drive me to be my best.
On the other hand, I've also been blessed with having worked for one of the worst bosses in the world. Everyone Has some reason for coming to work every morning. For this guy, work was nothing but a chance to humiliate someone - anyone - that day. No one could do anything right, and any ideas that someone had were, by definition, ridiculous. He made me a shell of myself, afraid to do anything for fear of failure.
I was far from alone in feeling bullied. Adam Dodek, a University of Ottawa law professor, recently noted that he gets an email at least once a month from a student complaining about the "toxic" workplace they find themselves in. It is impossible to serve the public interest, he argues, unless lawyers get rid of their own poisonous relationships.
For myself, one day, my boss came into my office to berate me about a brief I'd written. He pointed to the bottom of page three, where he had made a big red circle. Terribly written, he seethed. How could a lawyer of your vintage write like this? He laid the brief down and walked out. I looked at the brief. The part he had circled was a quote from a judge. He had not bothered to read the brief to know that he was actually criticizing the judge's own work. I knew then I could never make the guy happy and had to get out of there.
Why was it a blessing to have him as a boss? Two reasons.
First, he made me so paranoid about making a mistake, that to this day, I feel him peering over my shoulder, ready to pounce on everything I do. So I look over my work very, very carefully, with the full knowledge that there are mistakes in there that I need to catch.
Second, whenever someone working for me makes a mistake, I always hear my "inner Richard." I can hear exactly what he would have said and I know to avoid it. Keeping my "inner Richard" in makes me a more careful and compassionate lawyer, and one who honors the work that people do with me.
Good bosses show you how to be a better person. Bad bosses keep you from being bad yourself. All bosses change you.
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