Horrible bosses: The ‘weak dictator’ micromanages while forgetting to macromanage

Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

Bob was a control freak. He was also incompetent – a “weak dictator” – the worst of all possible workplace bosses.

Bob ran a music magazine I was nominally employed at in the early 1990s after journalism school. I wrote features on non-musical subjects and helped proofread text. I was in the office quite a bit, which gave me a close-up look at how Bob operated.

As publisher of the magazine, Bob insisted that all decisions large and small be run by him. Any calls – be they advertising, editorial, circulation, promotion or marketing related – went to him directly. In the middle of production, he would stop everything to deal with extremely minor issues, such as phoning a record reviewer about what CDs had recently come into the office; duties that should have been handled by a sub-editor, leaving Bob to deal with “big picture” issues, such as paying the printer.

The magazine had no real hierarchy. Bob was the boss and everyone else was a minion, with no real job title or clear understanding of their responsibilities. The question, “Who does what?” could be answered with the refrain: “Bob does everything. We just follow his orders.”

All of this would have been tolerable had Bob been a talented publisher. Alas, he wasn’t. In fact, he was downright awful. His editorials and articles were stilted and clunky, filled with bad puns and irrelevant tangents. He treated his staff poorly and forgot to pay them and was never quite sure which advertisers owed him money. If the magazine was short on stories, Bob would publish record company press releases as original content. His publication relied on an antiquated production system; the computers he used didn’t even have Spell Check, much less graphic design capabilities.

Bob’s managerial style maximized chaos and minimized initiative on the part of anyone but himself. Why stick your neck out, after all, when Bob insisted on making all the decisions? Work was one big bottle-neck after another as Bob tried to sort out what issues required his attention.

In political circles, Bob would have been known as a “weak dictator.”

A strong dictator also rules by fear and insists on taking responsibility for all workplace decisions. If the boss is good at what they do, however, if they produce profits and results, then their awful managerial skills can at least be tolerated. A strong dictator might not be a popular figure around the office, but they can be respected, even admired.

Think of your boss as a ship’s captain.

While a strong dictator runs the ship by fear and loathing, they always dock on time and ensure a pleasant voyage for their passengers, if not the crew. A weak dictator, on the other hand, would be so intent on yelling at the stewards for mismatching serviettes in the dining room that they fail to notice the iceberg-ahead. The poor sap steering the boat knows they’re headed towards disaster but has no authority to change course. Such a decision can only come from the top. And if the man at the top is consumed with trivialities, the ship will sink.

Which is exactly what happened to Bob’s magazine.

For a variety of issues, including erratic pay, a refusal to modernize the production process and Bob’s horrid leadership, employees began fleeing the magazine like rats on a doomed liner. In the end, Bob was reduced to running the magazine practically one-handed. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to see how that situation played out. A few months after I quit, the magazine folded.

My time at Bob’s magazine wasn’t completely wasted. The magazine contained some of my earliest bylined articles outside of student newspapers. More importantly, it gave me an invaluable education in office dynamics, particularly the old workplace cliché that could have served as Bob’s epitaph: jack of all trades, master of none.