I once worked for a boss who flat out didn’t like me, and everyone we worked with knew it. I came to think of him as my “Boss from Hell”. The funny thing is, I wouldn’t be the businesswoman I am today if I hadn’t worked for him. You may be surprised when I tell you my time with him was a gift for my development.

It took me years to figure out the story I’m about to share. When I reframed him from the Boss from Hell to my Development Angel, it made a surprising difference. I offer my story with the hope it may help you see your own story differently.

I’ll call him Mike, and this column is about what I learned, how I developed, and why I grew so much working for him, the boss I didn’t think I would survive.

For seven years I struggled with this person. If I came up with a good idea in a meeting, my colleagues would say, “That’s a great idea. Let’s use it, but don’t tell Mike it came from Ris or he won’t let us do it.”

After too many experiences like the above, I finally decided I had to talk to him to change what was going on. During this discussion, I asked why he continued to exclude me and avoid me. Without hesitating, he said, “When I picked my soldiers, you weren’t one of them.”

Now the obvious question I could have–should have–asked at that moment was, “Why?” Imagine what I could have learned! But I’m embarrassed to tell you that never occurred to me. Seriously. I was so invested in making him wrong that what went through my head instead was, “See, I am right. He doesn’t like me and never has!”

It took me a while to digest his comment. It took me years to digest my own reaction of righteousness. I had gotten lost in my story of being a victim.

Thinking Mike had just confirmed he was against me, even admitted it, I got more energy to prove he was wrong. But it wasn’t healthy. I robbed myself of the ability to think outside an “I’ll show you” mentality. I made anything I did all about proving myself, giving away my power and my peace at the same time. I just didn’t know it.

I do now. I came to realize I was pinning all my success on Mike changing. If he would just be a certain way, life could be so much better. As long as I focused on him, I never had to look at me. As long as I blamed him, I never had to take responsibility. It’s the slippery slope of a downward spiral when we blame somebody else for all that happens to us.

My wake-up call came in a conversation with my in-house mentor, my executive Dad. I remember a sense of the clouds parting and the sun showing up as I realized I could only change myself. I couldn’t change Mike, try as I might. Like dominoes falling, it all began to make sense. I felt empowered to make a difference again because I could; I was in charge of me. Nobody else.

Maria Shriver captured this thought beautifully in her book, Ten Things I Wish I’dKnown, when she wisely offered, “If I could spare you the pain you’re experiencing, I wouldn’t because I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the strength and wisdom you’ll gain from having gone through it and come out the other side.” It was years later that I grasped the gifts I got from Mike, gifts of strength and wisdom I still use today. That’s why he is my Development Angel. Rather than give in to festering resentment, I decided to reframe our challenges as development nuggets. After seven years, I think you could say I had a lot of material to work with!

  • I learned to be my own compass. Because I had no direction, I found direction.
  • I learned “sacred cows make great steaks” by asking why not, rather than holding back because I thought it was undiscussable.
  • I learned how to be a risk taker and try new things. When your boss is not looking over your shoulder, it gives great freedom.
  • I learned how to build alliances with internal clients.
  • I learned to build avenues around roadblocks.
  • I learned how to pick myself up, learn from my mistakes, and keep going.
  • I learned how to engage my staff with direction, listening, and support, the very things I had wanted.

There was also a dark side to this dilemma, and it took me longer to see this perspective of my survival techniques. They are the costs of feeling righteous. Identifying these insights was significant because they warn me, even now, when I am close to stepping into the suffocating quicksand of feeling like a victim and forgetting I always have a choice.

  • I survived by becoming a Lone Ranger. I didn’t ask for help when I really needed to, and missed opportunities for developing my staff.
  • I survived through becoming a Workaholic. I thought if I just kept working harder, my value would increase.
  • I survived through the Tough Cookie Syndrome. I became tougher and judged others who were not tough enough. I began to “should” on people—“You should work as hard as I do.” When I did this, I lost curiosity and compassion, also losing my capability for true leadership.
  • I survived through Trash Compacting. I had a staff member once who came to talk to me because she was feeling left out of our team. What courage that must have taken. I told her we’d talk later because I was minutes away from a meeting. But guess what? Later never came. When I realized my workaholism was creating disconnections like this, I trash compacted my discomfort and unease, just like the kitchen appliance, pushing the feelings out of my mind and heart. When you do that long enough, it’s like shooting novocain into your heart.

I don’t know where Mike is today, but I am thankful for my seven years with him. I could not have gained the inner strength nor learned the wisdom I did without “having gone through it and come out the other side”. It is not the tough bosses we conquer, but ourselves.