Rule #1: Don’t Publicly Criticize Your Boss

It’s never a good idea to criticize your boss in public. It’s an even worse idea to talk about him or her to the media. If you do, don’t be surprised if you get fired. You were asking for it.

General McChrystal Meeting with President Obama

For the last two days, I have watched with amazement as the drama with Gen. Stanley McChrystal has unfolded. Before this happened, I don’t think I even knew his name. In case you’re in the same position, let me provide a little background.

A little more than a year ago, President Obama appointed Gen. McChrystal to lead the war effort in Afghanistan. He is a graduate of West Point and spent the five years before his current appointment running the Pentagon’s most secretive “black ops.” He is renowned for saying out loud what other military officers are afraid to even think—one of the reasons President Obama cited as the rationale for appointing him.

But this time he went too far. He gave a series of interviews to Rolling Stone magazine [warning: vulgar language] in which he criticized several prominent officials in the Administration, including the Vice President and even the President himself.

Here are few excerpts:

  • He dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state “Chaos-istan.”
  • He said that Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass.
  • He revealed that Obama, his new boss, didn’t even meet with him until four months after his appointment. He dismissively referred to that meeting as a “10-minute photo op.”
  • He said Obama “didn’t seem very engaged” and was disappointed in his response to the war.
  • He goes on to criticize officials in the State Department and the White House. It’s clear that he thinks everyone except those on his own team are idiots. He knows best. Everyone else should get out of his way.

I have seen this attitude many times in my career. Believe me. I understand the frustration. I have worked for plenty of knuckleheads and been tempted to criticize them publicly myself. But I have never seen it result in anything positive. As Solomon observed millennia ago,

Do not curse the king, even in your thought; do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, and a bird in flight may tell the matter.” (Ecclesiastes 10:20, NKJV)

People in authority eventually find out. And when they do, you might discover you are not so indispensable after all. As a result, I will be shocked—and, frankly, disappointed—if the President doesn’t fire Gen. McChrystal.

If you have a problem with your boss, let me suggest an alternative approach:

  1. Give your boss the benefit of the doubt. Your perspective is limited. You are only seeing one side of the issue. Maybe you have misunderstood. You never go wrong by assuming the best.
  2. Don’t speak negatively of your boss in public. As a leader, you are setting an example. If you criticize your boss, your people will criticize you. You will replicate your behavior. Don’t sow the seeds of disloyalty or even discontent.
  3. Meet with your boss in private and state your concerns. Do it with courage, candor, and respect. If he’s a competent leader, he will listen carefully and act appropriately. Even if he or she doesn’t, you have done the honorable thing.
  4. If you disagree with your boss’s direction and feel deeply about it, then resign. The cowardly thing is to “bite the hand that feeds you.” Either support the boss publicly or find somewhere else to work.

This really comes down to a matter of integrity. Even if your boss is incompetent, you have the duty to respect him (see Romans 13:1–7). If you can’t do that, you need to resign. Speaking out publicly, while you are still employed, is not an option.

Questions: Have you ever faced this predicament? How did you respond?

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