These days, there's lots of buzz about the difference between leaders and managers. The chasm is nowhere as obvious than during times of turmoil, which I saw for myself with with two separate bosses at the same company. The first I would consider a leader, his replacement more like a manager (not a good one, either).
Part of the trouble arose from a recurrent issue with network outages, which affected operations across the company. Under both execs, similar problems dogged us, albeit with different root issues, and their responses couldn't have been more divergent.
The ideal boss
Under Boss A, when we had an outage I'd be on the frontlines trying to troubleshoot the issues and propose solutions. Certain executives at the company were interested in protecting only their own interests, so when troubles came up, they'd point fingers at IT even if it wasn’t IT’s fault. Boss A would loop me in when he figured I needed to know about such accusations and shield me from the worst of it, so I could focus on IT rather than office politics.
On other occasions, when I’d contact him, he’d follow up and respond fairly quickly. If it looked like I was struggling, he would ask what he could do to help. Even when there were no crises, he would still ask if I needed anything -- or simply see how I was doing and how work was going.
A change for the worse
The replacement boss was quite different. With Boss B, I immediately noticed that he seemed to have little to no experience overseeing IT. When we alerted him to issues that had to be addressed, he didn’t seem to acknowledge them -- as if he didn’t have an awareness of what was happening despite our telling him what was broken and what needed to be done.
There would be times when I emailed him something, and a few days later he’d ask questions that I’d already answered in the message. This happened over and over again. Despite our regular meetings, many details seemed to take forever to get approval or ended up in the abyss, never to be heard from again.
I had been urging him to shore up our network to make it more resilient, but I learned quickly to limit my use of technical jargon with him. Instead, I tried to explain it in simple terms because he didn’t grasp the concepts. To no one's surprise, when our single points of failures showed up, he'd ask why a failed component would cause such a big outage -- over and over again.
He also seemed unaware of the time commitment for IT support. The IT team worked through many weekends and nights, but he was oblivious to it until informed by other executives. Meanwhile, we had certainly kept him apprised.
He also never checked his work phone on weekends and nights. One time, he finally asked why I didn’t keep him in the loop, and I told him I had texted often, letting him know what was going on rather than call and wake him. Only then did he check his text messages and realize he had a bunch from me.
Boss B was also quick to blame IT, and we couldn't count on him to back us up in a conflict. Instead, he'd jump to the worst possible conclusion or grill us on why didn’t we do this or that. At the same time, he never offered assistance or even asked how I was doing after working more than 20 hours straight. Instead, I'd work to resolve a tough problem, only to to be met with the insulting question: “Why didn’t you put more urgency into resolving the problem quickly?”
Working with Boss B turned out to be a major time suck and caused ensuing stress and headaches. A good leader can certainly make a difference in the workplace, but a bad one can undo all of their progress.