We’ve all had lunatic bosses. Steve Jobs was actually fired from Apple, the company he co-founded, because his management style was considered toxic. I have known quite a few CEOs and founders who went ballistic at the drop of a hat. It was pretty traumatic at times.

And you know what? I bet I’ve got some former employees who might say the same thing about me.

Sure, I admit, there were times when I lost it under pressure. I could have rationalized that sort of behavior with euphemisms like it comes with the territory or some other nonsense. But I’d like to think I found a better way. I faced it and decided it was time for a change.

Live and, Most Important, Learn

The German philosopher Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

He was referring to survival in the face of adversity. It’s a great sentiment, one I’m sure we’d all like to be true. But in reality, it’s not, at least not for all of us. It depends on your true character.

There’s a lot written about the scourge of bad bosses. But there’s a flip side to the equation that doesn’t get a lot of ink. The question of whether leaders ever learn from their mistakes. Whether they become stronger in the face of adversity. It’s actually a situation that many of you will face.

You see, executives and business leaders often shoot themselves in the foot. Sometimes we even self-destruct. Nobody’s perfect; we all make mistakes. Sometimes we make big ones. If we’re reasonably self-aware, strong enough to look ourselves in the mirror and face what we see, then yes, we might come out of it stronger than before.

In a Stanford University commencement speech, Steve Jobs famously said, "I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick."

We all know the rest of the story, how Jobs returned to Apple and turned the nearly bankrupt company into the world’s most valuable corporation. Clearly, the public humiliation of being fired from the company he loved ultimately brought out the best in him. It made him stronger.

I can give you a laundry list of people I’ve known and worked with who fit that same description. One chief executive of a late-stage start-up had his two top vice presidents resign on the same day. That might have severely crippled a lesser man’s confidence and resolve, but not his. He survived and, years later, took the company public in a highly successful IPO.

Are You in Denial? 

But all too often, that’s not the case. You see, I’ve also known and worked with many dysfunctional or incompetent leaders who lived in denial. When things went terribly wrong for them and their companies, they blamed it on everyone but themselves. In those cases, the only things that came out stronger than before were the walls that separate their overblown egos from reality.

The truth is that when things go wrong, we’re not always aware of what really happened or who’s at fault. Sometimes we never figure it out. So the question of accountability isn’t always as clear cut as it seems. Nevertheless, there are distinct signs of whether Nietzsche’s hypothesis will hold true for you.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks he has all the answers, whose ego writes checks that reality can’t cash, who hates to be wrong, who is always pointing fingers at everyone else, who holds himself accountable only when good things happen, then there’s a very good chance that you won’t do well in the face of adversity.

If, on the other hand, you’re a pretty grounded person, don’t take yourself too seriously, aren’t likely to judge others harshly, have a relatively objective sense of your own strengths and weaknesses, and are genuinely open and introspective when things go wrong, then life’s trials and tribulations will serve only to strengthen you.

With all due respect to Nietzsche, I would say, “What doesn’t kill you brings out your true character.”


Published on: Feb 20, 2013
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.