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The Color of Money

Bullies, wimps, and other bad bosses

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michelle Singletary
July 8, 2007

I once had a boss who could put my stomach in knots just by walking past my desk. This person was so scary that even today, decades later, I still get chills thinking about her reign of terror.

Such management by fear is not uncommon in the business world, writes Stanley Bing in his newly revised book "Crazy Bosses."

"After nearly 6,000 years of evidence on the subject, one thing stands clear: The people who end up as leaders in any organization, large or small, are often the craziest guys around," Bing writes.

You need merely start a conversation at a party with, "My boss has lost his mind," and those around you will pipe in with their own stories.

In "Crazy Bosses" (Collins Publishing, $21.95), Bing uses corporate history, his own experience, and that of others to put to rest a question you may ask yourself every day as you walk into work: "Am I crazy?" Nope, it's more likely your boss, Bing writes.

If you're seeking proof that your boss is indeed nuts, read Bing's book, which is the Color of Money Book Club selection for July. Bing is a columnist for Fortune magazine and best-selling author of "What Would Machiavelli Do?: The Ends Justify the Meanness," a satirical and humorous look at how to become rich and powerful. Bing is the pen name for Gil Schwartz, executive vice president of corporate communications at CBS. So he can write with authority on corporate leadership.

"Crazy Bosses" is both entertaining and therapeutic. There's comfort knowing you are not alone.

Bing identifies five types of crazy bosses. There's the bully boss, how I'd describe my former tormentor.

"I begin with the bully not because he is special -- but because he is common, ubiquitous throughout all organizations large and small, private and public sector, domestic and international, successful and unsuccessful, found in every ethnic persuasion and religious denomination," he writes. "The most mediocre man or woman can suddenly seem dynamic, forceful, and decisive if he or she is mean enough."

(Throughout the book Bing mostly uses the male pronoun to refer to crazy bosses. Don't take offense. Bing admits he means "he or she.")

"Let there be no mistake, however," he says of the bully. "Women are no slouches in this department. In fact, I believe the female bully is perhaps the hardest to deal with of all, at least for any man who had a mother who scared him."

Perhaps your boss is the paranoid type. "The politics of the workplace function to heighten paranoia in even normal people, and the damaged, fragile crazy boss is ill-equipped to establish any kind of equilibrium," Bing writes.

The narcissist boss takes self-love to a place no one should go. "Behind the narcissist's self-absorption is not only a frosted head. There is meanness, too," says Bing. "For some reason, neurotic obsession with oneself puts a nasty edge on many people."

Woe to the worker who has a wimpy boss. Such a manager often hides under paperwork. He or she also is fond of meetings -- long ones. The wimpy boss also will abandon support of an underling if upper management comes attacking. "A wimp is a terrible burden for those who work beneath him, capable of prodigiously manipulative behavior and cowardice that poisons a normal employee's ability to function," according to Bing. "Those who work for a wimp may find themselves making the decisions he won't make, taking the risks he won't take."

Finally there is the disaster hunter. This type of boss doesn't listen to reason. He or she will pursue inadvisable strategies, from bad acquisition to outrageous sexual liaisons without heeding warnings.

Of course your boss could be a hybrid exhibiting characteristics from more than one group. For example, he or she could behave like a paranoid bully who hunts disaster but gets wimpy when calamity happens.

Each chapter of the book begins with a list of the symptoms and characteristics of the various boss types. The chapters end with quite helpful tips on things you can do to minimize your workplace torture.

This book is a bargain compared to years of therapy due to a crazy boss.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.

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