I’ve blogged here a few times about my own personal values and honesty. I have certainly seen examples of dishonest leaders, but most of those examples were one-offs, like asking me not to tell my staff about something yet or lying to me about the reason I couldn’t do the security audit I’d budgeted. While these weren’t things that I personally condoned, I could understand them, and the leaders I followed were generally honest.
However, I once worked for someone whose pattern of rampant dishonesty blew my mind. I’ve changed his or her name and identifying details in order to protect the guilty.
Ernie was brilliant. He personally knew more about technology than nearly anyone I’d ever encountered, and he was extraordinarily well connected. He used that knowledge and those connections to talk me into working for him. I was pretty early in my career, and was thrilled that someone so brilliant and connected wanted to take me under his wing.
Shortly after beginning work, I realized two things: Ernie absolutely could not admit that he was wrong, and he consistently lied to everyone around him – coworkers, staff, and users.
I realized his inability to admit that he was wrong first. He would tell me to do something and then chastise me when I didn’t do it right. The first few times, I assumed I’d recalled his instructions wrong, so I started writing down what he said. Turns out that he would change his mind if he didn’t like how he told me to do it. This was annoying enough that I stopped blindly following his instructions and insisted on talking out what I was supposed to do. He may have found it frustrating, but he did stop chastising me once he recalled the conversations.
His inability to be wrong translated to his own mistakes. He once set up a network switch with a configuration that seemed sub-optimal once it was running. We started suspecting that it was dropping packets or creating some sort of loop, so Ernie went to a vendor seminar to learn more. After he came back from the seminar, he called me into his office and said, “Jenn, the way you told me to set up the switch was wrong. It turns out that we should have…” Um, excuse me? I told him to set up the switch wrong? Blaming others for his mistakes turned out to be a consistent pattern.
Ernie’s pattern got bad enough that we started betting on his reversals. This all started with some server upgrades. I argued that we should take everything down and upgrade everything at once, since it had worked in our test environment. Ernie insisted that we had to do them one by one, leading to many late nights and many nights of partial or full outages for our users. After we did the first one, Ernie called us into a meeting, saying that we needed to talk about doing all the upgrades at once. I bet a coworker a beer that Ernie would insist that he never wanted to do the servers one-by-one.
We walked into the meeting, and Ernie started berating us immediately. He said that he didn’t understand why we couldn’t upgrade all of the servers at once. I shot back (because I can NEVER keep my mouth shut) that I had argued with him to do so and lost. After a few times back and forth about this, Ernie said, “Well, what I must have meant was that we would do one singly and then the rest all at once.” I won the beer.
Ernie especially couldn’t admit his errors to users. Once he took down our primary file server by stepping on the power switch. When a user showed up in his office to see what was going on, Ernie said, “You tried to open too many documents, didn’t you? I’ve told you that would take down the server someday.” I just stood there with my mouth hanging open – I couldn’t believe that he was blaming a user for his mistake.
Ernie’s inability to admit when he was wrong certainly contributed to his dishonesty, but we also caught him out-and-out lying on multiple occasions.
I once overheard Ernie telling someone from the C-suite that our network manager wasn’t very good, which was what had caused some recent slowness. When I confronted him about it, Ernie denied ever saying it. Once, in a meeting with our CFO, Ernie swore up and down that we were nearly done with a project that we hadn’t even thought about. After the CFO left the room, Ernie turned to me and said, “I lied.” I replied, “I know.”
When any user would ask about something that might have been an error, Ernie would severely chastise me when I told them the truth – that it was old hardware or something we had done. It was important to him that the IT Department look perfect, which seemed ridiculous to me, since we were working understaffed with very old equipment.
Ernie’s connections also turned out to be lies. The high-powered woman he claimed was his mentor hadn’t spoken to him in two years. Others who knew him told me, “He’d sell his own mother or sister to get ahead.” I found out that he was telling others in the industry that I was brilliant, but incompetent.
Ernie never moved ahead in his career – he stayed where he built his kingdom (even through today), since he could never earn the trust of his employees or users. From working with him, I learned the following key lessons:
- Vet your boss. Good liars are also good salespeople, and they can sell you the equivalent of vaporware to get you to work for them.
- Trust matters. Trust matters in teams, and it also matters to users/clients/customers – whoever you serve. You can only build family-like relationships with your target customers if they can trust you.
- If it smells bad, get out. I stayed with Ernie for several months longer than I should have, and my health and stress level suffered.
- You can’t fix everything. I tried to fix Ernie. I tried to get him to stop lying to users, and I tried to make his team happy. I ended up getting fired for my efforts (and had my character assassinated), but Ernie stayed the same.
I’m dying to know – am I the only one who has worked for an Ernie? Has anyone else been in situations like this? How did you deal with it?
“108/365 – Today’s photo is brought to you by the letter E and the number 24” by bp6316 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
One thought on “Suffering through dishonest leadership”
I am working for an Ernie right now. The worst part is that his bosses have (or ought to have) caught him lying to them, yet they must still trust him since he is still here.
I will leave the company that I love so that I can get away from my Ernie. I wrote my resignation letter and it is in my locked drawer right on top of the firm strategic plan that is painful to work toward executing (because of Ernie).
I am giving management 3 more months to deal with Ernie and if they choose not to, I will fire myself.
Bert probably said something about life being too short…
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