The Value of a Horrible Warning

“If you can’t be a good example, at least you can be a horrible warning.”

It has been many years since I was first amused and instructed by this little saying, and since then I have found it more applicable than one would think.

Someone who is a good example is inspiring to behold. But I have often found it to be a very passive inspiration: the person seems to be standing on the top of a mountain whose sides are covered by cloud, so that I don’t know what path to follow. Or if imagination can fill in some of the steep passages, the leaps across gullies and the bits of sheer cliff face, I think, “That’s too hard. I can’t do that.”

A horrible warning, on the other hand, is like a spotlight shining on each little step to take.

An example: suppose it is your first job and you have a wonderful boss. You would like to emulate her, but everything she does is right and you don’t know how she figures that out. After a while the company reorganizes and you have The Boss From You-Know-Where. He is belittling. He changes the project specs right up to the deadline. He says he’ll be 30 minutes late to your 1-to-1, then another 15 minutes, and finally he cancels altogether.

The importance of keeping a calm tone, setting clear instructions in the first place and being on time to meetings may not have sunk in with the first boss. You may have seen those things as nice, if you noticed them consciously at all, but didn’t realize how essential they were to not driving your employees crazy. Now everything the new boss does that makes him hated is another mental note: “Do the opposite of that!”

Thus my belief that it is often easier to steer away from a bad example than towards a good one.

Now, of course, I am not suggesting that it’s better to be a bad example. I am merely pointing out that for those wanting to grow, observing the bad is sometimes – though not always – more effective than trying to figure out the good. The additional benefit is that understanding the bad makes it easier to analyze (and appreciate) the good later.

There is one further encouragement to be had from this saying: the reminder at difficult moments that it is worth trying to climb that steep and cloudy mountain. The consolation that if you don’t, “at least” you can be a horrible warning, is a very small one.

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