In 2011, I was a founding employee at what is now the country’s largest e-commerce startup and B2B seller of adult fashion & accessories (the keyword here being adult). In India, the laws governing this “industry” are outdated and painfully convoluted. Depending on which lawyer you ask, it is a legal grey area at best and Crime Report headliner at worst.
But the position on offer was worth the risk. Not only was my job profoundly fascinating and multifaceted, but I knew from the onset that this was a company to watch, a rare breed of cutting edge innovation and the sales figures to back it. All my responsibilities were carved from – and indeed, the job was a stepping stone to – the work-profile of a CEO.
So Why Did It Go South?
Alas, at this firm, I had one particularly nasty, dyspeptic superior, who would invariably inject hatred and cynicism into any conversation exceeding 10 seconds. He was the precise anti thesis of someone who fosters a healthy professional environment, and I would even go so far as to say he was toxic to any form of psychological safety. He was the sole reason I would eventually leave the firm, and to this day I ignore his phonecalls and texts.
This guy had no qualms about making his employees drive 5 miles out to fetch him a sandwich during work hours, on his employees’ personal vehicle and fuel expense, of course. His version of lunchtime banter featured scandalous tales of his time in Africa with underaged girls, belittling employees for sport, and being generally offensive. To subordinate and peer alike, and even the occasional Fedex delivery agent.
“With power comes the abuse of power. And where there are bosses, there are crazy bosses. It’s nothing new.”
– Judd Rose
Employees began gathering outside the office for lunch to avoid his gaze and unsolicited interaction, and to trade stories of his wanton malice. It amazes me that no complaint of sexual harrassment was lodged, though in fairness, if one ever was, it wouldn’t be public knowledge. At any rate, it became swiftly impossible to be oneself around him, let alone feel safe.
What Can I Learn From This Experience?
By the time I left that firm, I was severely disillusioned with the corporate machinery. I had been a journalist until I joined, and to writing I would return. Fortunately, I’d left my last job on good terms, and my previous employer welcomed me back to the position I left behind. Then began the process of immersing myself in work, family, and friends, as a way of conscious, painstaking self-therapy to wash away the unexpressed resentment boiling inside for that contemptible man.
But the writer-blood within eventually compelled me to lift a pen and bleed my feelings in ink. Here are three thoughts I would like to share:
- Real leaders bring out the best in everyone, not the worst. The true measure of a man is not in how he treats his equals, but how he treats his inferiors.
- Givers who give at the expense of themselves have also to set the limits. What incentive do takers have to set limits?
- It’s not always your fault that relationships break down. Sometimes, the person in front of you is just a schmuck.
“They cannot take away your self-respect if you do not give it to them.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
What, Then, Makes A Leader?
I have since worked with some of the best teams and people across the country. I confirmed that my vision of a positive, self-feeding professional environment is not totally bananas, and that psychological safety & security is vital to any healthy working environment. Fear and hate are great motivators, but also fatal to creativity and happiness in the long-term.
Successful leaders focus on the positive. They are able to criticise constructively, while not alienating or demeaning those around them. This is easier said than done, and takes years of effort and psychological exercise, but the payoff is a permanent change in the psyche of the leader and the team surrounding.
If you’ve had a similar experience, or would like to share your thoughts on what makes a good leader, please share the article or leave a comment. I would love to hear them.
The Author is expressing solely his views, and does not speak on behalf of anyone else. He believes support from superiors and a comfortable environment are critical to the functioning of any employee. The components that drive a successful leader are varied, but hatred & cynicism are not amongst them.