What Does a Bully Look Like?


I was called a bully once. About 13 years ago.

I’d been coaching for 7 years in some form by that time and had gone through the eye of the needle in my personal development, which just means I’d done some serious work on myself.

When that word was directed at me, I was in a support role within the public sector. I was shocked and thought the person must’ve been talking to someone else. I knew myself to be deeply heartfelt on the inside, convinced that if you cracked opened my rib cage and peered in you’d see a cluster of fluffy marshmallows.

But something was clearly remiss if someone was experiencing me in the complete opposite way to the values I believed were important and how self-aware I thought I was at the time.

It was a pivotal moment in my career. My intention had been to get the job done and thought everyone was on the same page. I had been raised with a strong work ethic and had developed an insatiable desire to do well, one might now call it the curse of perfectionism. My strongest driver was to exceed all expectations, not knowing then I was caught up in an unachievable quest to prove myself.


That moment was a catalyst that catapulted me toward wanting to understand more deeply what made human beings tick, and the difference between what was going on inside a person to how they were perceived on the outside.

Fast forward well over a decade of studying human behaviour through a variety of methodologies, and coaching hundreds more people, actively learning how the theory plays out in real life, I now share this story in workshops and keynotes to make a point. Most people are surprised, not being able to reconcile the person in front of them with the scenario I'm sharing. Others are curious, and one or two come and thank me afterwards for sharing real stories that speak of failure, learning and growth.

The reason I tell this story now, one that I couldn't only a few years ago because I still carried the shame of being called such a word, is to encourage others to reflect on the impact we all have on each other.


There’s a dance here that I think is important. It’s a dance between knowing that we have no control over what others think and how they perceive us (that’s their business), AND the undeniable responsibility we have for how we communicate, engage and lead. It’s an indefinable line, impossible to know where one stops and the other starts, but the daily practice of self-accountability is one we cannot deny if we are choosing the path of leadership.

Not one of us is perfect, if we play ‘in the arena’ as Brene Brown would say, I believe we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to create messes that need cleaning up, we’re going to be misunderstood and judged. But that doesn’t mean we shy away from the feedback and learning, or the self-reflection and painful growth.

One thing I know for sure is that we all see, feel and experience the world differently. Some speak loudly and with great passion, others listen deeply and intently. Some people become impatient quickly, while others seem to have infinite patience though suffer silently in their capacity to support everyone. Some trust quickly, others take a long time to trust, some like to recheck and check again, some move forward quickly paying less attention to the miniature.


Being called a bully had me react by attempting to overcompensate for a few years for something I decided in that moment was a flaw - my passion, my determination and my desire to achieve. I decided I needed to be more amiable, however soon discovered that clipping my wings left me feeling unchallenged, uninspired and deeply unfulfilled.

The journey back from that to owning my whole self, embodying wisdom in the process and valuing inner confidence, presence, compassion and influence as a way to serve others, is what allows me to contribute even more in my coaching of leaders now. Leaders who are themselves up against their success ceiling, knowing what got them to where they are, won't get them to where they want to be.


Becoming aware of our imperfect nature, owning our story and embracing all that we are and all that we are not, with compassion and acceptance, requires deep courage. On the other side of this journey though is where true freedom lies. Freedom to be who we really are with deep awareness, profound responsibility and no apology. 

When we accept that our thinking, mindset and attitude impacts others, and we get really interested in how we can connect, engage and build trust through a deeper understanding of self and others, we become leaders of substance who can lift people up to succeed, and lead and guide them through their own internal challenges toward their innate greatness.