You dream, you say, of being a rotten leader? Congratulations! Today is your lucky day.

There are people all around you who want to build great businesses, make money, or change the world. They need you to make it easy to steal your customers and your brightest and most passionate employees. You’ll be doing a lot of people a big favor!

And who wants to go home every night miserable and exhausted? You, that’s who! Being a rotten leader is the first step.

So, we’re here to help. What you are about to read is full of advice on how to give feedback like a rotten leader. It’s good advice. We’ve tried some of it, and we’ve watched others try it, too. Believe us, it works.

This advice is not difficult to put into practice. Giving feedback like a rotten leader is one of the easiest things to do. In fact, we’re proud to say these principles are being put into action all over the world today -- even right now, as you read this. Rotten leaders are everywhere -- learn from the worst!

Enough yakking! Let’s get to it -- The Rotten Leader’s Guide to Giving Feedback.

Don’t Even Bother!

This is the single most important tip we can give a rotten leader. Your direct reports should already know what they’re supposed to be doing, and whether they’re doing it well, or poorly. And, if they don’t, it’s best to keep them guessing -- uncertainty makes for sharper and more engaged employees, right? Besides, you’ve got better things to do with your time than give feedback -- that office football pool isn’t going to fill itself out, you know!

See? Easy! We could (and should) stop right here and you’d already be a world-class rotten leader. But if you must, or feel the slightest or rarest impulse to give people feedback, here’s how to be the mostest rottenest feedback giver ever.

Believe the Worst!

Rotten feedback doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to be prepared! Save yourself a lot of time and inconvenience by making some simple assumptions about the people who work for you:

  • they’re incompetent

  • they’re out to get you

  • they can’t be trusted

  • they spend most of the day thinking up ways to make mistakes or otherwise annoy the living daylights out of you

  • they’re basically idiots

  • their goal in life is to disappoint you

“Oh, my,” we hear you thinking, “this explains everything!” Yes, yes it does, and once you embrace these blissful assumptions, you’re ready to hit the ground running.

Threats Work Best!

Did someone make a mistake? Of course they did! Threaten them with grotesque and disruptive consequences, or threaten them with subtle, sweetly whispered suggestions about their future employability. We don’t care which -- just threaten them! Scared, distracted people work harder and faster. We read it on the Internet, so it must be true.

Raising Your Voice Works Even Better!

Everyone knows the most powerful motivation in the world to grow and improve one’s performance is an angry, red-faced boss who could explode at any moment. Let them know how boiling mad you are, and so easily can become, and they’ll never, ever make another mistake.

Be Vague!

If you’re either happy or unhappy with their performance, don’t be too specific as to why. They can figure it out on their own. That’s what you pay them for. Also, be as vague as possible about your expectations, desired results, or areas for improvement. This is a great strategy for saving time in the future, as the people who work for you really should be able to read your mind, shouldn’t they? Hints, ambiguities, and even mumbles are an important part of their training. Get them started today!


Go ahead -- check your email, or take a phone call while giving someone feedback. It’s OK to make them wait. After all, you’re a busy, important person, and your direct reports should be grateful for the opportunity to be mentored by you.

Make It About You!

Having to give feedback has handed you a golden opportunity! Take the credit you deserve! If by some accident, someone who works for you did a good job, make sure they (and everyone else around) understand that it’s almost entirely due to your support, your vision, and your superior intelligence. They probably already know that, but it can’t hurt to remind them.

Feedback. Unless horribly misused by rotten leaders, it creates happy, independent employees who are great at solving problems, making money and changing the world.

You’ve been warned.

AuthorJoseph Fusco

(Originally published under the title "The Three Foundations for Providing Feedback to Employees" on "Brainwaves," the blog of the University of Vermont's Continuing and Distance Education Department)

Sometimes, we just call it feedback -- a performance review, a disciplinary action, a pat on the back -- and simply leave it at that. But it’s much, much more.

Feedback is information, but it’s also wisdom. Feedback is nourishment. It feeds people’s and organizations’ need to grow, adapt, and thrive. It creates the capacity to repair, renew, and evolve. And, it is what the best leaders are great at. In a great organization, feedback happens all the time, in all directions, and is welcomed and embraced.

After all, feedback is central to the love affair with the truth that great leaders know is vital to all organizations -- the truth of who we are, the truth of our impact on others, the truth of our markets and our customers, and the truth of what we do well and what we don’t do well.

Yes, feedback is sometimes simply a performance review, or a pat on the back. Whatever form it takes (and it takes many) there are a number of very specific beliefs and behaviors that are foundational to great feedback. Here are three that we see in the very best leaders, and in the very best feedback:

It always builds, and never tears down.

Great feedback never raises its voice in anger, never belittles, and never humiliates, no matter the nature and the size of the mistake. It does not roll its eyes, sneer or snort in disgust.

It speaks the truth in love. It understands that people are imperfect, and have imperfect days. It believes in people’s ability and desire to rise above those imperfections and do good, meaningful work. It accepts the principle that no one wakes up in the morning eager to fail. Great feedback cares about people and wants them to learn, grow, and succeed. That’s why feedback exists, and it delivers that message in the spirit and the voice in which it is given.

It always challenges, but never threatens.

Great feedback never seeks to strike fear into people’s hearts. It doesn’t criminalize mistakes, or summarily execute employees for making them. It doesn’t feed on ultimatums. It doesn’t threaten with grotesque and disruptive consequences, or with subtle and sweetly whispered suggestions about job security.

It pushes people to grow. It understands people don’t work well when they’re scared and distracted. It encourages people to learn, and to strive to not make the same mistake twice. It challenges people to leave their comfort zones, and to reach higher and try harder. Great feedback is clear about expectations, and embraces accountability.

It always gives, and never steals.

Great feedback never robs people of their dignity. It never deprives them of a chance to make it right. It doesn’t steal their voice. It doesn’t disturb the peace or steal stability.

It is a gift. It is the gift of the space and permission to learn, or to correct a course of action. It gives clarity, encouragement, insight, meaning and truth. It gives hope. It casts credit and success far and wide. It shares information and learning. It connects people and builds relationships. It gives time - to conversations and relationship building, and to the hard work and investment that makes great feedback so valuable.

There is a simple, practical way to build great feedback skills. Whenever you have the opportunity to give feedback, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is what I’m about to say (and how I’m going to say it) going to build the person in front of me, or tear them down?

  2. Is what I’m about to say (and how I’m going to say it) going to challenge the person in front of me, or threaten them?

  3. Is what I’m about to say (and how I’m going to say it) going to be a gift to the person in front of me, or will it steal from them?

These are tough questions, tougher than they look on the surface. It is easy to delude ourselves with answers that justify our motives, rather than serve as a genuine reflection of the truth of what comes out of our mouths.

In any case, feedback is difficult to excel at, but delivers an exceptional return on investment. To do it well consistently demands a life- and career-long commitment, regardless of whether your goal is to make money or to change the world. Understanding its foundations is the first step.


AuthorJoseph Fusco

(Originally published on "Brainwaves," the blog of the University of Vermont's Continuing and Distance Education Department)

We all love the idea of innovation, right?

I want to be innovative. You want to be innovative. Everybody wants to be innovative.

In pursuing or talking about innovation, the danger is that we give it merely lip service, and treat it as a fad or a fashionable idea to toss like confetti in our meetings and in our marketing. We risk using it as a cheap applause line in our conversations about economic development, public policy, and strategic planning without really understanding or acknowledging what it demands of us.

If we’re being honest, innovation is not a fad. It is not merely a fashionable way to think and talk about business, or the future, or the next big social media gold rush.

Survival of the Fittest
Innovation has always been a quiet and persistent foundation of great companies and great organizations. Success and happiness in business and in life has always been about the ability to solve increasingly complex problems at a mastery level. Innovation is really about that daily and often unfashionable pursuit — “is there a better way to solve this problem?”

And so at every level, in every molecule, companies and their leaders are...


AuthorJoseph Fusco

I’ve invented a new word. Or, rather, the observation of managers in the wild has suggested a new word:

Data + Asphyxiation = Datasphyxiation 

It is, simply, when the fetish for managing almost purely by data, and analysis, and spreadsheets chokes an organization’s ability to creatively and flexibly solve problems, focus on the customer's needs, or innovate.

Usually, death soon follows.

AuthorJoseph Fusco

(Originally published on, a leading publication and voice for business sustainability and corporate social responsibility)

I want to share an insight with you.

Before I do, you should know this about me: I am not an expert in sustainability. For most of my life, I never gave it much thought, nor did it interest me. I may have even smirked at the idea once or twice.

You should know this about the company I work for: it is a mundane business. We are not superstars in the sustainability movement. Our name certainly wouldn’t escape from your lips should you be asked to name a fashionable triple bottom line company.

I sit on the board of advisors for a new and unique sustainable entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) at the University of Vermont because my company wrestles with this new business paradigm every day.

A few years ago, we had a moment of clarity. Suddenly, we realized our entire existence was based on a business model that was simply unsustainable.

We had to ask ourselves a very important question: what will the world — the planet, our markets, our customers, our communities — expect from us in twenty or thirty years? What will we get paid for?

You should know we came to this simple conclusion: we’ll get paid by helping to solve the problem of the world’s limited resources. At that moment, nearly everything changed — the way we hire, build, and treat people, the investments we make, the way we work with customers, the risks we embrace.

Simply put, all our problems are centered around resource limits — natural, environmental, people, time, capital, and so on. All of our opportunities — profit, growth, contributing to society, creating shareholder value — come from our ability to solve those problems better than anybody else. To do that we have to embrace sustainability. We have to become a different kind of company.

And that transformation calls for a different kind of leader.


AuthorJoseph Fusco

(Originally published on "Brainwaves," the blog of the University of Vermont's Continuing and Distance Education Department)

If you’re reading this, you have an itch that may need scratching — the desire to start and run your own business, which is one of life’s most noble impulses. Running your own business is not just a way to make a living, it’s also a path to making a life. In Vermont, making a life is just as important and fulfilling as making a living.

Scratching that itch in Vermont (or elsewhere, to be honest) is not often easy, and I want you to be successful. And, of course, it’s very tempting to rattle off a “Top 10” list of small business tips.

But beyond the sugary, conventional advice you could certainly find somewhere, anywhere else, there are four things – not often talked about – that I’ve watched every successful business owner or leader do very well. You’ll need to master these things as well.


AuthorJoseph Fusco

 A fearful organization (one breathing the fumes of insecurity and mistrust) too often becomes a complex organization.

A complex organization too often becomes a control-obsessed organization, and values that control much more than it values masterful problem-solving.

An organization that values control over masterful problem-solving too often solves problems poorly, and goes broke and dies.

Fear kills businesses.

AuthorJoseph Fusco

Organizations and managers crave certainty. That's why the spreadsheet was invented. Put a lot of them in a three-ring binder, sprinkle in some pie charts, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

You cannot eliminate uncertainty. And, it’s impossible to create complete certainty. Some things remain uncertain, unmeasurable, unpredictable and, so, require faith as a tool of leadership.

We have no faith, so we live and work in a world of fear and mistrust. The degree of fear and mistrust are reflected formally by the intensity of an organization’s processes, systems, procedures and rules, and informally in the behavioral weaknesses of its leaders.

But, you say, fear and mistrust come along with the territory, the human jungle, the fight for survival. Yes, it's true. The human condition is a wretched state of affairs -- brutish, nasty and short. How's that working for you?

Leadership -- like all acts of creation, like all works of art -- is a rebellion. You must rebel against this wretched state of affairs.

Your job is to transcend what fear and mistrust do to an organization, how it pollutes people's problem solving passion and abilities. Remember this -- excessive and rigid processes, systems, rules and procedures are a tax you pay for being afraid and suspicious.

Lead, don't manage. Sprinkle in some faith instead.

AuthorJoseph Fusco
2 CommentsPost a comment

Life is about a lot of things. At its core, however, it is a problem-solving journey. Life throws problems -- decisions, challenges, relationships, puzzles, choices, thoughts -- at you every day. You wake up, put your feet on the floor, and start solving problems.

Skillful problem solving leads to success and happiness. Poor problem solving...well, doesn’t.

Great, and good, problem solvers expect challenges daily, and embrace each and every one of them. They understand the path to mastery in life is a deep passion and commitment to the challenges and problems life throws at them. And, they’re grateful for the opportunity. After all, having challenges, and doing the work, is what makes you human, and what reminds you that you are alive.

Simply, problems are good things. One of your goals should be to share this love of problems which, when embraced, offers you a path to mastery in your life. In their daily lives and challenges, inspired problem solvers see this path clearly:

  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over stagnation. Problems invite you to learn new skills, to grow, to adapt, to venture beyond your comfort zone, to pursue and shape your and others’ future.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over irrelevance. You matter. Your ideas, skills, knowledge and insights matter. The world needs you. You have something to contribute to the battle. How dare you not think so.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over chaos. You really do have a measure of control over your life, over your results, over your direction. It’s your ability to be a great problem solver.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over fear. Fear, uncertainty, doubt and instability thrive on our inability or unwillingness to address challenges in our lives and work. Solve problems well, and they lose their power to terrify you. Also, look around you. There aren’t a lot of great problem solvers in the world. Be one -- it’s terrific job security.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over isolation. Reach out. Ask for help. Connect with other people, and other ideas, insights and experiences. You are never alone.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over boredom. Let your brain out of its cage. Experiment and play. Have fun. Invent something. Be inspired.

AuthorJoseph Fusco

We know so much, and have studied so much, and have imagined so much about what great leadership looks, smells, and acts like.

And yet.

And yet, we’re not very good at it, are we? As many people in organizational life often — painfully — suspect, we haven’t quite mastered it. This is not a criticism or a breathless statement of crisis. It’s just an observation.

Leading well is tough. As much as we love the idea of leading, and as full as our heads are with the knowledge and techniques of leading, it’s very difficult to do. Despite our attempts to quantify, analyze and simplify it in the laboratory, out in the wild it is a shadowy creature, escaping the traps we set for it.

The mystery, however, is not about what we still need to learn or invent about good leadership practice and behavior.

The mystery is this: why, with all we know, with all our wonderful, good and true knowledge, do we too often fail to realize the ideals of leadership in ourselves and in our organizations?

All of these approaches to leadership and personal growth, to their credit, describe a kind of utopia, where purpose, teamwork, success and joy flow like milk and honey. Why, then, do we have such trouble reaching this promised land? Where is the flaw?

Why, blessed with an abundance of insight and intellect about effective behaviors and principles of personal growth, are we unable to sustain the change and effectiveness we seek?

Why do we continue to struggle with results we don’t want or intend (but, nonetheless, our behavior and choices are perfectly designed to produce)? Why, after all those books and seminars, nothing seems to be different, or our progress is painfully slow?

Why do we find it so hard to change, when we know we should and we know what it’s supposed to look like?

Why do we mess it up?

We are addicted to cheap leadership.

At worst, we pursue this addiction intentionally. This intentional, or conscious, form of cheap leadership can be the cynical exercise of certain management behaviors that are a form of abuse, but what we claim are designed to “solve problems,” “get results,” or “win.” It can also be those behaviors we’ve simply learned or observed, and which we have come to believe without question are the best way to organize and conduct daily business.

More commonly, but no less toxic, we are simply unconscious of both the addiction and its consequences. Our intentions are good; we simply don’t realize what we’re doing, and why, nor do we always immediately notice the damage done.

Either way, cheap leadership is the biggest threat to our personal growth, an enabler of our ineffective behaviors, and a stumbling block to our success as leaders.

Cheap leadership mires our organizations in mediocrity, or worse. It erodes performance and sustainability. It steals, often silently and invisibly, from our bottom line.

Cheap leadership smothers the happiness and enjoyment of work, and the fulfillment that all of us — leaders and followers — seek in organizational life.

Our addiction to cheap leadership chokes the creativity, energy and problem-solving skills of everyone around us. It frustrates and weakens. It annoys and deflates.

Cheap leadership is poison.

AuthorJoseph Fusco