Great Boss: Taking the Heat

No matter whether you work for a successful company or one that is struggling, there will always be plenty of heat to take.  Organizations seem to be obsessed with what is sometimes knows as the “search for the guilty, and the punishment of the innocent.”  If you find yourself in the path of such a witch hunt, you’re in trouble.

Unless you’ve got protection.

One of the most helpful things my best boss did was to step in front of those speeding bullets while simultaneously shielding me and his other subordinates from the vagaries of the “blame game.”

Doing this took a high level of commitment to his team.  It took a keen insight into where things might be headed.  And most of all it took guts.

In the modern era, we often hear about “throwing someone under the bus.”  My best boss stood in front of the bus, preventing it from running over any of us.

And yes, sometimes he was run over as a result.


The antithesis of taking the heat is making sure the heat is taken by someone else.

I’ve blogged and written extensively about the tactic of scapegoating (see:  Scapegoats, Invest in Scapegoats – Tactic #19, and Power and Politics in the Corporation.)  In short, Scapegoating is the intentional lining up of a victim to take the fall for a “problem project” or “risky strategy.”  Usually the tactic is not employed malevolently.  It is used simply to protect the boss’s backside.

I personally find it to be among the most morally repugnant of political tactics, but grudgingly acknowledge it works.

In fact, I’ve seen it work quite effectively.

In one example, my boss appointed a General Manager over a risky, new product line development project just as the effort was reaching the critical stage of testing with customers.  On the surface, the appointment made sense.  The project required more than just the technical resources currently assigned to it at that point – it needed someone with a broader business sense who could evaluate the situation and make calls about the product’s future.

Except that was only part of the reason for appointing the GM, a point which became obvious to me when I heard who got the job.

The employee hired as the GM had been on my boss’s “dislike” list for a long time.  My boss had previously conducted a campaign against the employee when he worked for me, trying to convince me to remove him from his job – one he appeared to be handling quite well.  The reasons are too complicated to go into here, but suffice it to say the boss favored someone else in that job.  When I was transferred to another division, the guy only lasted a few months under my replacement.

I thought that manager was headed out the door – I advised him to leave, in fact – but instead he ended up heading this risky development project.  The reason was clear – he would be an easy sacrificial lamb if the project didn’t pan out.

And, as you can probably guess, it didn’t.  When things went sideways, the GM was the one that delivered the bad news.  He was in the front seat, taking the heat from the rest of the management team and the board of directors.  Eventually, the project was eliminated, and he (along with a couple of other senior guys in engineering and sales) was fired.

I don’t know how my boss explained this to the board, but I can guess….

Stepping in front or stepping aside?

Most bosses aren’t scapegoaters, but they are often guilty of dodging bullets in an attempt to protect their own posteriors – often to the detriment of their subordinates.

For a capable boss, no major project or initiative develops in a vacuum.  The boss is typically involved in the process in an intimate way, and if she isn’t then shame on her.  In short – a project coming from a boss’s area of responsibility belongs to her.  She owns it.  Even if she neglects the details and delegates the broad strokes.  Even if her subordinate runs far out ahead of her.  There should be no escape from this reality.

Except many bosses duck and dodge.

When the proverbial “stuff” hits the fan, the mediocre boss sides with outsiders, heaping blame on one of his subordinates either directly or through his unwillingness to step in on the subordinate’s behalf.

I recall an instance where I failed in this fashion.

At a strategy review meeting, one of my subordinates made an overstatement during his portion of the presentation – something to the effect that we had “cut spending to the bone.”

It was a dumb thing to say.  We hadn’t actually made cuts.  Instead, we’d kept spending flat for an extended time period, trimming some expenses while trying to maintain employment.  By the time of this review, it probably “felt like” spending had been cut, but that hadn’t actually happened.

The CEO, who was known for his bad temper, immediately latched onto this error.  He then proceeded to torture my subordinate for a good ten minutes, including screaming at him over the “idiocy” of his statement.  I should have stepped in front of that speeding freight train, but I didn’t.  I was terrified by the CEO’s behavior, and wanted nothing to the incident.

My best boss would have given better to his subordinate.  Yep, I was chicken.  But I learned a lesson that day and tried to do better in the future.

Stepping up

My best boss never left a subordinate twisting in the wind.

Perhaps it was an outgrowth of his position in life.  After all, he had already been the CEO of a substantial company, and had enough money that he didn’t have to worry about collecting his next paycheck.  But I doubt this was a major factor.  He was still as achievement oriented as anyone I knew, and would have undoubtedly felt terrible had he become the sacrifice offered up in the wake of a major failure.

Perhaps he was unusually brave, being unwilling to let anyone take unwarranted or excessive criticism.  That probably partially explained his willingness to step in front of the bus, but I’ve always seen more to it than that.

Loyalty.  I believe that was the extra factor.  The special sauce.  My best boss was committed to our little team in a way that was unusual by today’s corporate standards.  And while it might have exposed him to more potential political problems, he did a good job managing those risks by staying close to the projects we worked on and watching how we interacted with those above us.

And the loyalty had side benefits – like getting me to work harder for him than any other boss to whom I ever reported.

I remember an incident where one of my peers was in front of a large crowd (including the COO, but not the vitriolic CEO) giving a presentation on pricing.  When the questioning became heated and my peer faltered – as it always seemed to happen at this company – my best boss stepped into the gap, saying:  “If you have a problem with pricing policy, you need to talk to ME, not my analyst.”

And they did “talk” to him.  In attack mode.  For what seemed like forever.

Of course, my best boss was much better than I would have been (and better than the peer who was on the ropes) at taking on the pointed interrogation.  He fought back appropriately, and in the end, nobody got hurt.

 This big fish picture is here just for fun.

This big fish picture is here just for fun.

My peer would have probably suffered a major career setback had not my best boss intervened.


A great boss doesn’t leave her subordinates exposed and unprotected when there are problems.  A part of the “loyalty deal” she has with her people includes an unspoken willingness to step in and take the heat when things haven’t gone well.  Doing so takes plenty of intestinal fortitude, but it produces benefits over the longer haul.

Lesser managers step away from their subordinates, or even sometimes offer up subordinates as a “corporate sacrifice” when a particular failure demands one.  While such managers may protect themselves in the short term, they give up the positive relationships and higher levels of performance a great boss gets from his subordinates.

Other posts in the Greatest Boss Series (in Chronological Order):

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To the right is the cover for HEIR APPARENT.  Someone is killing corporate leaders in Kansas City.  But who?  The police and FBI pursue a "serial killer" theory, leaving Joel Smith and Evangelina Sikes to examine other motives.  As the pair zero in on the perpetrator, they put their own lives at risk.  There are multiple suspects and enough clues for the reader to identify the killer in this classic whodunnit set in a corporate crucible.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.