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How To Deal With Bullies in Leadership


(This is the third in a series of articles about bullies in leadership, their impact, and what you can do to handle them in the workplace).

Bullies are lurking everywhere.

They're in every company operating in a variety of positions, with diverse backgrounds. Sometimes they're disguised well, especially to their superiors. Other times, its plain to see who the bullies are no matter where you sit.

If you recently read TRUTH: Bullies Are Not Leaders, you know that bullies dismantle a person's emotional balance. As a coach who deals with bully victims, I've seen people suffer at the hands of bullies in ways that left them professionally crippled. Anguished over the deep humiliation, it changed their lives dramatically.

I've had a few run-ins with bullies myself. That's how I learned to deal with them.

Case in point: Iraq 2004. I have to note here that I encountered male AND female bullies throughout my time in Iraq, but these examples seem most relevant for today's article.

I was an HR defense contractor working for Halliburton/KBR and had been in Iraq for a couple of months. On the surface, things appeared to be going well for me in spite of the actual war going on around me. I worked hard, achieved some performance wins quickly, and got a promotion. As a result, I was transferring out from Al Asad near Ar Ramadi to a new camp.

Except, I was really leaving the base because I felt like I was in danger.

Not because of the bombings and attacks. There had been a handful of women on base at the time, and some went home because they had been physically attacked. Two women contractors had been raped. They filed a complaint to base management, and were immediately sent home.

The responsible party? A small group of hostile male bullies, all of them Americans and in leadership roles. They seemed untouchable, and the Head Project Manager turned a blind eye to their behavior. I called it The Wild West of the Middle East.

I always prided myself on the ability to build rapport with very difficult people, so when conflict arose between me and one of the bullies, Marian, I didn't back down, but tried to gently handle each situation.

Gentle did not work- completely.

I discovered that Marian had gotten two other contractors to stalk me. when I walked from my tent to the bathroom, they were there. When I went from the gym to the chow hall, they followed me. When I was in my tent, they were right outside.

I was genuinely frightened.

It was so blatant that a marine sergeant saw what was happening and began escorting me back and forth between camp and work. I was so thankful for this gentleman who kept me from an imminent attack.

Things started to look up when a female deputy project manager (DPM), Sylvia, came onsite a few weeks later. I explained what was happening and she took it upon herself to move me into her living quarters on an extra cot until I could get to my next base. She tried to help deal with the situation, and she was my hero.

The day finally came when I got on the plane and went to my next base in North Tikrit. I breathed a major sigh of relief as I watched the bully and his recruits, who were standing on the tarmac, get smaller and smaller. I could finally leave Al Asad and the nightmare behind.

All was okay for awhile until I got stuck in Baghdad due to the sandstorm season. I ended up working the travel department there for 6 weeks and encountered another bully in leadership, Mike.

Mike had a personality of intolerance for anyone who appeared to question his judgment. It was clear to our team that he was inexperienced in the role, and we constantly had to rework his mistakes (which impacted hundreds of traveling contractors getting to their locations in a timely fashion and on the right plane or bus).

I spent every single day calming angry contractors.

They were stuck in Baghdad, losing money because they had been left off the travel manifest, or their orders had not made it to the travel office thanks to Mike's lack of communication. He simply wasn't concerned about it.

While some of my colleagues were satisfied with just surviving through each day and avoiding his wrath, I was not. I set out to propose a few ideas to Mike to help our contractors and assist him with getting things back on track. When I made the suggestions during a team meeting, I instantly knew that he was seething and took it as a personal hit. Not good for me.

The next day, I came into the travel office and Mike was sitting at his desk. He looked over to one of the senior HR generalists, and said, "Anyone who messes with me, is going to have to face my friends, Smith & Wesson."

At that moment, he pulled out what appeared to be a black handgun from his desk. He looked over it, then glanced over at me. Who cares that having a handgun was against contractor policy! I immediately turned around and left the office.