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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  • Jim Lewis

    There comes a time in every leader's life when he or she faces criticism. Yes, one must correct and discipline those who criticize in the wrong manner; even terminate open insubordination. What one must never do is ignore it. For within every criticism lies a kernel of truth that must be embraced. So, before Obama kicks a** today he needs to do the one thing that is the most difficult . . . Listen to General McChrystal. He should take notes and thank the General as he leaves; then close the door and contemplate how to correct his own leadership and his staff's. Then step up to the podium and take responsibility for his own issues and appoint someone who will criticize him privately. And then start acting as a Commander in Chief. (but he didn't)

    Yes, I have been there — and went through the process with a dysfunctional board and finally resigned. I have had staff criticize me behind my back and to my face . . . and had attempted to see the truth in it. But the line of insubordination cannot be crossed — or else. It undermines authority and respect. I agree with the General’s assessment of the President. He is someone I would not serve, nor fall on my sword for.

  • Martin

    How did Solomon know about Twitter??

    I think the temptation to criticize your boss is always there, given the perception that you expect more from them(they are the boss). I've always been disappointed in speaking against a boss publicly, especially in a military setting. The first core value for the Army is loyalty and if you break that value with the Commander in Chief(President Obama) how do you keep it with anyone else?

  • RpJ

    As a former "boss", I think President Obama could have handled things in a different manner.
    1. Criticizing the employee (Gen. McChrystal) in publc before talking with him is poor behavior for a manager. It never helps to denigrate an employee before or after you talk to him. This leaves no room for resolving the problem and dimishes one's stature in the eyes of other employees. In my opinion, no member of the administration should have talked about the situation to reporters, and should have been told to issue a "no comment" statement when asked about it.
    2. Firing an employee is never easy. But the way to do it is without a lot of fanfare, and talk.
    3. President Obama could use a few lessons in basic management and human relations.
    4. He had to relieve him of the command if he couldn't resolve the problem, and he couldn't because he had already discussed the general's judgement.

  • Alan R

    An opinion voiced on an LA radio station this morning as possible explanation of the actions of McChrystal:
    1) Exit from an impossible to win situation.
    2) Launch political career.
    It wouldn't be first time that "politcal strategy" veered from Biblical principles.
    It will be interesting to see how this works for him.

    Have you contacted him for a book deal?

    • Michael Hyatt

      No, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is already in discussions with a publisher.

  • Jim Martin

    This story reminds me of just how tragic such moments are. McChrystal showed an amazing lack of self-discipline. Certainly his comments and interview with Rolling Stone were out of bounds.

    Part of the tragedy here (and perhaps a lesson to be learned) involves his competency in other areas. From everything I've read about the General, he was a very, very capable person.

    Those of us who are Christian leaders (I include myself here) would do well to remember that competency in some areas does not make up for misbehavior in other areas. I have known a number of Christian leaders who were capable and competent in so many ways, but who lost the confidence of people because of what they said in unguarded moments. These moments often reflect a lack of good judgement and maybe more.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I totally agree with everything you have said, Jim.

  • Jack Kilms

    Hmmm, what about honesty, integrity and being true to yourself. Sometimes you have to take one for the team as the General has done

    He was in the best position to judge and he did. History will judge the whole thing.

    • Michael Hyatt

      In every relationship, there comes a time when you disagree with the other party. That's only natural. It's what you do with it that matters. You can either talk TO the other person or ABOUT the other person. Gen. McChrystal chose the latter. While he may have been honest, I don’t believe he acted with integrity.

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  • AndrewComings

    I think I saw a reference to this in one of your replies, but it bears repeating…the parallels between this situation and the MacArthur/Truman conflict are fascinating.

    If McChrystal had learned from MacArthur's mistakes, and Obama had learned from Truman's mistakes, this might never have happened.

  • Joseph

    While I agree that General did commit a mistake, do we have a failing leader? Didn't Paul openly criticize Peter for failing to provide leadership?

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  • roband06

    This article gave me a different perspective on leadership. One example I have is criticizing coaches and officials. I use to criticize both all the time until I was in those positions. Boy is it different when you’re on stage. Everybody has an opinion but most don’t see what goes on behind closed doors as the saying goes.