Unexpected Leadership Skills | AboutLeaders.com
Article by Al Gonzalez
December 12, 2012

bullyNot included in leadership skills is bullying.

A couple of months ago, I started a discussion on bullying in the About Leaders LinkedIn group to help a friend who is being bullied by her boss. As with many bullying bosses, my friend’s manager feels completely justified in her behavior and does not see anything wrong with her approach.

Little did I know that, through this discussion, I was going to end up closing a long, painful chapter of a bullying situation of my own. A situation in which I was the bully and felt justified for MY actions.

An apology accepted from someone I bullied in grade school over 30 years ago…

Sad, but True

When I was a kid, I was always popular. Good athlete, friends with the “in” crowd, AND, most definitely, a bully. A peaceful, quiet kid, whom I will call “Manny”, was my main victim.

Although Manny was always nice to me and wanted to be my friend, I would intimidate and scare him whenever I felt like it, just because I could. This bullying behavior made me feel strong, and his pain was never something I considered. It was as if my popularity made me feel entitled to bully him.

Going into the eighth grade, Manny told me he was leaving our school because he didn’t have any friends in our school. When I told him that he DID have friends, he courageously explained that the way we treated him was not the way friends treat each other. I will never forget our short conversation.

With wisdom and courage, he taught me a lesson I was not ready to learn.

Not Part of the “In” Crowd

Over the years, I have never forgotten Manny and how badly I treated him. I left Puerto Rico the next year and never had a chance to apologize. I moved to New York, and for the first time in my life, I was an outsider. I was the new “Spanish” kid, a long haired surfer with a thick accent who others were mostly curious about. The jocks and their girlfriends were nice and polite , but it was it was clear to me I was different enough NOT to be considered part of the “in” crowd.

While I was not bullied myself, I saw how some of the popular kids were bullying many of the kids that were becoming my friends. It broke my heart to see how mean they were and how they got away with it. Just like me, they seemed to feel entitled to bully others. There were no consequences from their bullying actions and they kept doing it.

bullying girls

I felt remorse as I would remember what I had done to Manny. The picture of the him crying as I bullied him tortured me.


Over 20 years later, when Facebook caught on, and I became interested in leadership development, I started looking for him via the social web because I desperately needed to apologize. I asked many of my friends from Puerto Rico if they had heard from him, but had no luck.

A few weeks ago, his picture came up in my Facebook page as someone I may know! Although he looked older, I remembered him immediately. I quickly messaged him to verify he was the person I had been looking for after all these years. Within minutes, he replied and said, “yes”.

Tears of remorse and embarrassment rolled down my face as I quickly asked for his forgiveness for all the bad things I had done to him. In his loving and nurturing way, he accepted my apology and explained that he didn’t remember me for the things I did.

After a few heartfelt messages, Manny and I became friends on FB and this experience has helped me understand my motivation and drive to help others lead better.

The Bully was ME! Twice!

As a kid, I was an overt and mean bully. As a manager, I learned ways of bullying covertly by hiding behind my rank. Although I may not have been as bad as other bosses, I was still a bully and very good at getting away with it.

In both situations, albeit years apart, I found ways to justify my behavior. I felt entitled to my actions! I was wrong both times and had to look in the mirror long and hard to face up to the fact that it was ME who needed to change.

It took courageous and caring feedback from a few trusted colleagues to help me realize what I was doing, but it also took my years of remorse to humble and remind me that I had bullied before and could definitely be bullying others again.

bullying at work

Leadership Skills, Unexpected

It is ironic that I started this discussion post to help a friend of mine who is being bullied at work. As it turned out, the post would be a way for me to remember my own wrongdoing and how difficult it is for us to accept that our behavior may be hurting others.

It is now clear to me that helping leaders to lead without bullying has been a mission of mine primarily because I know how easily it is to justify our actions when we hurt others. As a kid and as a manager, I easily fell into a trap of bullying, laid out in front of me by popularity and authority. Not only do I know how easy it is to bully others, I also know firsthand how hard it is to admit it and change.

If you are interested in the discussion post and would like to contribute, you can access the post on LinkedIn.

Now it’s Your Turn

  • Have you been bullied by a manager who may not know she or he is bullying you?
  • Is it possible that you may have bullied someone else and not be aware of it?
  • What are some signs managers can look for that can tell them they are using their authority to bully others?

I’d Like Your Feedback

Please comment below. Thanks!

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Al Gonzalez

Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop proven, trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.

  • High Praise to you Al. It take a great person to recognize personal short-comings, and then to take the necessary steps to correct personal behaviors.

    Before I started my Servant Leadership (SL) practices, I found it easy to intimidate others with my positional authority, even to the point of bullying to some degree. It is an easy trap to get into without a high level of Emotional Intelligence and self-discipline.

    Leaders need to continually self-reflect their behaviors with an open mind to correct even the slightest perception of bullying. This includes an awareness of one’s non-verbal communication methods such as leaning forward when speaking in a firm voice, wrinkling one’s forehead to make a point, and slight raising of one’s voice to make a point.

    Thanks for the post Al.

  • I appreciate your openness and transperancy about your own life, Thank you! The real issues of bullying is serious in school and the work place. My point in responding is to commend you on stepping up and owning your own responsibility and asking for forgivenss! As a leader, I have had to do this many times in career.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker

    Wow! Al, what a great article with many leadership takeaways. Please tell us more. What are the common bullying behaviors that managers do that they are unaware of? For example, what did you do to hide behind your rank? This would be great topic for your next article. Thanks!

  • That took guts! What a wonderful story of learning and leadership at its best.

    Anyone else out there want to step up and tell their story?

  • I lived my life through school relatively free from bullies until I got a work visa oversees to a developed country. I cannot mention the country for fear of reprimand. Boss bullying and intmidation is rife and shocking here. I am just holding on to complete my contract. Being different in a different place especially being Black is horrifying. Leaders must be put in these positions by training and not by default.

  • It just occurred to me that someone may be able to help me to direct my daughter on how she can deal with a workplace bullying scenario that is so bad, that she collapsed at work today from the stress of it all and was taken to hospital by ambulance. The bully is the manager of the business and one of her co-workers.

    We are lodging an Incident report tomorrow.

    Trouble started when she found one of her other co-workers embezzeling cash to the tune of a couple of hundred thousand dollars. When she approached her manager about it, she didnt beleive her. The end result is that the co-worker is in jail (he had done the same thing to two other businesses that actually went bankrupt). The police said that it was so well done, they were amazed. He had never been linked back to the other two bankrupcies. You would think that the owner of the business would be grateful. What am I missing????
    We have copious amounts of evidence to back up all that my daughter is saying. She is a single mum and really needs the job.

    My gut feeling is that something else that we are unaware of is going on in the background and they are afraid of it being found out.

    Any assistance to help handle this would be greatly appreciated.

  • thank you all for your comments, this is truly personal area and I am touched by all the comments.

    Karyn, through my research on this topic I have found that Kathleen Bartle at http://www.kathleenbartle.com/ provides services that may be helpful in your situation. Best of luck with this difficult issue. Al

  • Good morning Al,
    Thank you. We are having a family meeting tonight and hopefully I can help guide her into taking a proactive stance. Will also investigate the link that you sent over. Thanks again and have a safe and wonderful Xmas.

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