I recently worked for a nonprofit public health organization in Belize. It was the chance of a lifetime for a college graduate who wanted to get out of the States: free housing, a livable salary, the opportunity to get involved in public health problems and solutions in a foreign country, and the chance to grow on a personal and professional level by challenging myself to live and work abroad.
I loved my first boss. She was a native New Yorker who rose in the ranks of our company until she became director of the Belize site and started to oversee our humble staff of four employees and expand our network of community partners. She built strong relationships with other organizations, hospitals, doctors, and traditional healers in the area, slowly gaining their trust and respect so that they, too, could join our initiative to improve access to quality care in rural Belize.
I followed her lead and went out of my way to get to know members of the community, expressing interest in their work and sharing my ideas about how we could expand our health services and make them more sustainable. I got along great with the staff and we worked collaboratively on all of our projects, dividing up the labor so that each person could contribute their own unique take on the project.
Unfortunately, five months after I joined the organization, my boss went through a telenovela-style breakup and had to leave the country. The organization scrambled to replace her with someone who had lots of experience in management and sales, which they assumed was more important for a site leader than someone with a big heart and a lot of great ideas.
They decided to hire my new boss (let’s call him Juan) because of his work experience and talkative demeanor. He had spent the last nine years working his way up from being a floor salesman to becoming the manager of 25 salesmen (before being fired for stealing from the company, although he insisted he was set up so that they wouldn’t have to give him a pension for ten years of employment).
Juan put on a great show for the regional director, who flew in to train him during his first week of employment. But as soon as the regional director left, things started to fall apart. Juan represented everything I wanted to avoid in a leader: he loved the sound of his own voice; delegated instead of getting involved in the projects of his overworked, small staff; antagonized the community partners; made excuses when he failed or forgot to do something; pitted the staff against one another by talking about them behind their back and blaming them for projects gone wrong; and upsetting our volunteers through his cultural insensitivity.
As everything unraveled at the Belize site, where we had over forty volunteers in-country participating in five different projects, all of which had to be overseen by at least one staff member, Juan sat at his desk or disappeared for long periods of time. If someone asked him a question, he directed them to me because he didn’t know the answer. He had absolutely no idea what we were trying to accomplish and had no desire to get involved in the fieldwork that transformed us from a placement agency into an organization that deeply cared about and catered to the needs of the community.
When two groups of volunteers left the country after a harrowing two weeks of mobile clinics, Juan called us in for an emergency staff meeting. Their program evaluations were far below average; they wrote about the tangible tension between staff members, how disorganized everything seemed, the lack of communication…the list went on and on. I had worked twelve hour days trying to hold things together for the group so it was hard not to take the evaluations personally, but to make things worse, Juan’s “staff meeting” consisted of four hours of him chastising each and every staff member (except for his sister, the accountant) for not trying hard enough, not working together, not letting him in on what we were doing, etc. Juan singled out one staff member in particular, berating him for not planning and executing various tasks that were, in fact, Juan’s responsibility. Every time my colleague opened his mouth for a rebuttal, Juan shot him down, silencing him with even louder yelling.
Ultimately, I quit. It was partially for financial reasons, but mostly because I couldn’t stand to work with—much less be led by—such a disrespectful, condescending, callous man who played himself as the victim whenever I confronted him about his role and responsibilities. I had a profound, deeply meaningful experience in Belize and got to work with such amazing people, and I didn’t want my memories of Belize to be sullied by the negative experience of working with him.
In my last weeks there, I hand-picked a replacement who, like me, cared more about serving the community and developing effective health projects than he did about his own ego. I trained him to take the initiative to meet people in the community and make use of our volunteer funds to provide healthcare services to those who needed them most, no matter how often Juan talked about cutting the budget.
So what’s the lesson in this story? To turn it into a positive, it’s a lesson about what makes a good leader. Juan must have been a good manager or he wouldn’t have lasted so long at his old company or risen to such a high managerial position. He was good at delegating, isolating himself from the ho-hum daily tasks while still overseeing them, and trying to cut costs, all of which make more sense for an incentive-driven field like sales.
But what he lacked was empathy—not just for the community we were supposed to serve, but also for the staff that worked so hard to make our lofty goals of accessible healthcare into a reality. He saw himself as a manager instead of an equal partner who, like us, had to put his heart and soul—or at least his time and energy—into the daily work if he wanted the organization to go anywhere. This does not just apply to the nonprofit and social entrepreneur fields. No matter what the context of our hierarchical relationship was, he should have made an effort to care about his staff, clients, and his work.
If there is one thing I learned from Juan, it’s that anyone can be a boss, but not everyone can be a leader. My old boss got me involved in each project, introduced me to our community partners, and asked me what I wanted to get out of the work from day one. When people came into the office asking for money for HIV drugs or help getting a life-saving surgery in Guatemala, she did not turn her back and apologetically respond that we didn’t have room in the budget. Instead, she did what she could to help each person out, even if it took us a year to repay the pharmacy or physician. I am grateful to Juan for helping me recognize that a boss can only be a leader if she truly cares about her employees, her business (or community) partners, her clients, and her actual work. Juan was a big talker and always insisted that he cared about us and the job, but actions are louder than words, and I was never convinced.
When I went to Belize, I expected to learn about delivering health care to underserved communities and experience a new culture. But what I took away from the experience was a deep respect for people who do not let their ego or the organizational hierarchy define how they treat and work with others. And that’s a lesson that I’ll draw on for many years to come.