From a safety perspective, fire drills are important. If your building is on fire, you need to know how to escape safely. Then there’s the other kind of fire drill, where high-pressure managers project their stress onto others.
I worked for guys like that. I’ve been that guy, too. Nothing good comes from it, and good people get hurt.
Example: In 2000, I was assistant editor of The Eagle-Tribune‘s New Hampshire edition. My boss made my brand of control-freakism look like a champagne party. I was warned about him when I took the job. One editor said I’d have to play good cop to this guy’s bad cop. Good advice, but I lacked the balls to take it at the time.
Instead, I gave in to my instinct to please my masters. His attitude was that all the reporters were children who needed their ears slapped on a regular basis, and he expected me to carry out his will. When he told me to take a reporter to the woodshed, I did, no matter how small the infraction.
Once a reporter was working on a story that wasn’t time sensitive, but there was a hole in the paper to fill on deadline, and he decided it would be her responsibility to fill it. Never mind that her husband was having major surgery that morning. He ordered me to call her and be tough. I did.
An hour or so later, the paper’s top editor called me to his office. My boss was there. He asked me what happened, and I told him. The NH managing editor sat there red faced. It was always red, but it was particularly crimson in the big boss’s windowless office.
It turns out the reporter had called to complain. How dare an editor call her early in the morning to give her a hard time about something trivial on a day when her husband’s life was hanging in the balance.
The editor agreed with her, as he should have. He told me to ease up. He didn’t want reporters to see me as the newsroom asshole. I said I’d keep that in mind and left his office, feeling like I had just been simultaneously stabbed in the side of the head and slammed in the gut with a brick.
To this day, it’s one of my biggest regrets.
I’ve had some outstanding bosses since then, and they’ve taught me a lot.
Three bosses in particular — including the current one and the guy right before him — practiced kind, calm leadership. For them, the key to getting the best work from others is to treat them with compassion and give them the flexibility to deal with life’s curve balls. A kind boss who lets employees deal with their shit — as long as it doesn’t irreparably damage the work at hand — helps the employee grow in heart as well as skill.
These bosses will be the first to tell you that making people leap over every damned thing is stupid. Put people through enough fire drills and the chaos will break them.
A good person doesn’t break other people. It’s simple decency. It’s a lesson that has been one of my biggest blessings.