What do conflict resolution and managing up have in common? (Part 1)

I had a love-hate relationship with my old boss. The love part was my incredible respect for this former Olympic gold medalist turned CEO of one of the leading professional development companies in the world. He was one of those people who could make you laugh, cry, and get inspired—all at the same time—whenever he spoke to an audience. People always came up to me after one of Terry’s amazing speeches to say how lucky I was to work for this man. I’d smile and say, “I sure am”, knowing I was lying through my teeth.

In looking back, it was awfully ironic. Here we were, a company best known for our leadership development training and materials, and yet we didn’t practice a lick of it within our own company. We were a walking contradiction. Do as we say…not as we do!

Here’s the hate part. Our CEO, Terry, ran the organization with an iron fist. It was the classic parent-child dynamics…and I’m talking about the relationship between Terry and his managers, of which I was the newest. He was a short man who sat behind a very large desk. In fact, it was so large that he’d literally be looking down at you as you sat in one of the two little chairs strategically placed out in front of his desk. I can’t remember, did I already mention parent-child dynamics? Anyway, you could sum up his management style with these three words: command-and-control. But wait, I’m just getting started.

Whenever Terry wanted to see you, he wanted to see you NOW…not in ten minutes, not when you have time…but NOW! And since he was a man of few words, he’d never tell you why he wanted to see you. As a result, you didn’t know if you were in trouble or if you would be expected to summarize something from one of your past reports that he’s just now getting to. Instead, all you got was, “Can you come down to my office!” It was agonizing.

And to add insult to injury, his office was on the opposite side of the building, in its own wing no less. The laborious walk over involved ambling down an assortment of long hallways, like an unending maze, until you’d eventually pop out right in front of his old and grouchy secretary who seemed to never know you were coming.

“What do you want?” she’d say, without looking up.

You get the idea.

The part that still baffles me to this day is how all the other managers seemed okay with Terry’s abrupt and controlling style. In fact, they seemed to almost welcome the dysfunction, enabling it whenever possible. In hindsight, I think Terry’s ineptness provided comic relief for them. And get this, every Friday all of us managers would sneak out to lunch (we didn’t want Terry to know we were getting together) and meet up at a local pub where we’d take turns sharing Terry-stories over beers (keep in mind, this was over twenty years ago).

Unlike my peers, the Terry-bashing every Friday didn’t alleviate or justify his behavior for me. I still struggled with it and one Friday brought it up at lunch.

“I just don’t think its right,” I’d say, “and he needs to know that we can’t always come running every time he needs something.”

The other managers laughed. “Are you serious?” they’d say. “The last guy to take on Terry was immediately shown the door,” as they all nodded together.

So much for their support, I thought to myself.

As the weeks went by, my resolve to change my relationship with Terry increased with every “Can you come down here” phone call. I thought and thought and thought. I knew that his sense of urgency and abruptness was an annoyance for me, but there had to be something else. Why was he making me so mad?

And then it came to me…(stay tuned for Part 2 next week)

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